Since the 2000 election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has had more success constructing alliances across party lines than any politician in recent memory. McCain is now collaborating with Democrats on a stunning array of major policy proposals. It's the political equivalent of Willie Nelson teaming with Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. McCain has emerged as a one-man fusion movement; he's become the most hyphenated name in Washington.
Best known is McCain-Feingold, the campaign finance reform bill McCain has steered to the edge of President Bush's desk with Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis. But there's also McCain-Edwards-Kennedy, the patients' bill of rights he guided through the Senate last year with Democrats John Edwards of North Carolina and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Not to mention McCain-Hollings, the bill to federalize airport security workers that McCain and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., forced into law last fall over Bush's objections.
There's more. McCain, in other partnerships with Democrats, has joined with Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana on a bill to vastly expand national service opportunities for young people. He has introduced two bills with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., -- one to require background checks on sales at gun shows, the second to establish a commission to study the government's failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. They are drafting a third -- a plan to use market forces to drive reductions in the gases associated with global warming. And in the energy debate starting this week in the Senate, McCain is likely to partner with Hollings and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry on a measure to squeeze more miles per gallon from cars and SUVs.
McCain began hyphenating regularly during the Clinton years, working with Democrats on normalizing relations with Vietnam and efforts to reduce teen smoking. But his outreach has greatly intensified since his 2000 race against Bush in the GOP presidential primary. That campaign broadened McCain's interests -- sharpening his focus on questions such as reforming health maintenance organizations -- and lengthened his reach. "I don't think there is any doubt that the increased visibility of the campaign increased the influence I can have over the legislative process," he says.
Inclination and capacity have merged to carry McCain into a unique position. His ability to force issues into the public eye and his reputation for independence makes him the ideal collaborator for "third way" Democrats looking to establish bipartisan credibility for their ideas. "Every Democrat with a centrist idea tries to sign McCain on as a lead partner," says Bruce Reed, president of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. At the same time, McCain has grown more open to those alliances -- and aggressive about pursuing his own -- as he has hardened his conviction that only ideas with appeal across party lines can succeed in a Congress so narrowly divided. That narrow division has strengthened his hand, too, by maximizing the leverage of mavericks on either side who are willing to vote across party lines.
McCain and Bush have generally managed to avoid personal acrimony, especially after Sept. 11. And McCain has supported the administration on many foreign policy issues (such as targeting Iraq). But McCain's alliances with Democrats have become a systematic challenge to Bush's control of the domestic agenda.
The practical effect of McCain's partnerships is always to tilt the Senate balance of power away from the White House position. As the price of his participation, McCain usually forces Democrats to moderate their ideas. But the resulting proposals still point the policy further in a Democratic direction than the White House likes. McCain's patients' bill of rights contained a broader right to sue than Bush preferred; his campaign finance reform bill imposed stricter limits on "soft money" -- unlimited contributions to the national political parties -- than Bush wanted. Bush proposed voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; McCain would make them mandatory. The list goes on.
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