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McCain in the middle: Can Senate's GOP elders solve shutdown mess?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

U.S. Senator John McCain talks to reporters after the Senate passed a bill to temporarily continue funding the government on Sept. 27. The bill was rejected by the House of Representatives.

Arizona Sen. John McCain and other like-minded Republican senators could end up reprising roles as key deal-makers as the party seeks a final negotiated solution to the government shutdown.

No clear path to ending the impasse over spending has emerged, but in one possible deal scenario -- a comprehensive agreement that also solves the problem of raising the debt limit -- McCain will likely play an essential role, just as he has been in past bipartisan agreements like the immigration bill that passed the Senate last June. 

With a core group of House Republicans sticking together in their chamber, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell taking a low public profile in the fight, that leaves McCain and similar-thinking GOP senators to look for a deal.

It’s no secret and no surprise that the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential standard-bearer has been critical of the strategy of conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, of trying to use the spending bill and perhaps the debt limit as vehicles to force President Barack Obama to agree to defund or delay his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

McCain has argued over and over again that this is one battle that the Republicans simply cannot win. 

And most Republican senators seem to agree with him, but there is little evidence that their GOP counterparts in the House can be convinced, at least not yet.

The lines have been drawn between Senate Republicans like McCain and House Tea Party members who are joined by a handful of sympathetic GOP senators like Cruz, who staged a 21-plus hour protest speech on the Senate floor against Obamacare last week.

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

The impact of the first government shutdown in 17 years was felt across America as offices were shuttered and workers were sent home after lawmakers failed to come to a deal.

McCain, in turn, took to the floor to chastise Cruz for comparing those who opposed Obamacare delays to Nazi appeasers in the run up to World War II.

"I resoundingly reject that allegation. That allegation, in my view, does a great disservice," McCain said on the Senate floor. "I do not agree with that comparison; I think it's wrong."

The decisive vote that allowed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to move ahead and pass his short-term spending bill last Friday was the vote on cloture, or ending debate. On that vote, 25 of the Senate’s 46 Republicans voted to end debate and thus opened the door that allowed the Senate to pass the spending bill.

Among the 25 GOP senators voting to end debate were Minority Leader McConnell of Kentucky and every member of the Senate GOP leadership team.

But over the past several days, McConnell has largely not been in the vanguard of the fight over defunding Obamacare and blocking a spending bill.

He is faced with the pressure of a conservative primary challenger, Matt Bevin, the tenor of whose campaign is suggested by the tagline of one recent campaign e-mail: “Follower McConnell's Liberalism Catches Up to Him.”

(McConnell’s lifetime voting rating from the American Conservative Union: 90 out of a perfect 100.)

As McConnell receded from leading the public fight, Republicans like McCain have picked up the slack.

“We have to understand that the only way we are going to repeal Obamacare is when we have 67 Republican votes in the United States Senate because that's what's required to override a presidential veto,” McCain told Bloomberg News on Monday.

McCain noted that he’d campaigned against Obamacare during the 2012 campaign and that he’d fought to defeat it on the Senate floor in 2009.

But he added, “In democracies, unfortunately sometimes the majority rules. That's why we (Republicans) are at a disadvantage in this fight that we're having.”

He added that “by threatening to shut down the government we are kind of circumventing the results of elections” – an argument that Obama and administration spokesmen have also made.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expresses concern over a comparison made by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Tuesday between fighting Obamacare and standing up to Nazi Germany.

The conservatives’ effort to defund or delay Obamacare risks alienating voters as the GOP heads into the 2014 mid-term elections, McCain has implied.

“We're doing things that frankly are not rational in the view of our constituents,” he said Monday.

Rather than simply being against Obamacare, he said, “We can present a positive agenda for the American people and win the elections in 2014. And I think if we do it right, we've got a great shot of getting a majority in the Senate.”

But at least in the past two days, House Republicans have been following a playbook suggested by McCain: target the “most unpopular provisions such as the tax on medical devices and let's rifle shot amendments so that we force people to vote on those.”

Warning his party to change its strategy on Obamacare and the government shutdown comes as the latest in a line of skirmishes between McCain and the younger conservatives such as Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who are asserting a claim to the party’s leadership.

McCain has called Cruz and Paul “wacko birds” – an epithet he later apologized for using.

He has also broken with Cruz and other conservatives on other issues, such as:

  • The Budget: McCain has repeatedly said it was a mistake for conservatives to oppose the Democratic effort to convene a House-Senate Conference Committee to come up with a budget for Fiscal Year 2014.
  • Guns: McCain was one of only four Senate Republicans to vote for a background check measure offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a measure gun control advocates hoped Congress would pass in response to the shootings in Newton, Conn., last year.
  • Immigration: McCain helped design the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill that the Senate passed in June. Among the 32 Republicans voting “no” on that bill: Cruz, Paul and Lee.
  • Drones: The day after Paul staged a filibuster to dramatize his fears about the domestic use of drones, McCain went to the Senate floor to assail the Kentucky Republican, saying that he’d “done a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them believe that somehow they are in danger from their government. They are not.” McCain scoffed that to think that a president might order use of a drone to kill “someone who disagrees with the government's policies is a stretch of imagination which is, frankly, ridiculous.”

So it’s very much true to form for the Arizona senator to be lined up against Cruz and the 18 other most-conservative Republicans in the Senate.

There has been bad blood between House Republican conservatives and McCain for a long time on a variety of issues, including foreign policy. “I love John, but he hasn't found a conflict he doesn't think we should arm or bomb," said Rep. David Schweikert, R- Ariz., last June, adding “He hates me.”

Of course in the end McCain is not the speaker of the House and can’t bring bills to the House floor for a vote. The barrier to a comprehensive deal, even one McCain helped broker, would  still remain conservatives in the House.

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