Republicans rediscover McCain


    Sen. John McCain, the best-known political reformer in Congress, is popular again — among Republicans.

    Which
    shows how seriously the GOP takes the political threat posed by
    lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Republican-flavored corruption scandal
    he has spawned.

    In less than three weeks at the dawn of an
    election year, the Republicans have unceremoniously dumped Reps. Tom
    DeLay and Bob Ney, two lawmakers with close ties to Abramoff, from
    positions of power.

    GOP leaders also have announced with fanfare
    plans for legislation to curb the excesses that the lobbyist, who has
    pleaded guilty to federal felony charges, has come to represent.

    And they argue relentlessly that Democrats share some of the blame.

    Speaker
    Dennis Hastert said earlier this week, “There are Democrats that should
    be before the ethics committee,” and Senate Republicans sought to turn
    the spotlight on Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “Harry’s Hypocrisy,”
    Republicans headlined a booklet-length report that said the Nevadan
    “has conveniently ignored his own ties to Jack Abramoff.”

    Reid,
    responding at a news conference on Wednesday, called the report junk,
    adding that he didn’t know Abramoff. “This is a Republican scandal and
    they can say anything they want. My conscience is clear,” said Reid
    said.

    Republicans also turned to McCain, the occasional party
    maverick with the gold-plated reformer’s resume and a demonstrated
    appeal to independent voters. GOP leaders covet that appeal as they
    look ahead to fall elections that will test their grip on power.

    “Obviously,
    when you’re looking at the issue of congressional reform, the first
    person you turn to in the United States Senate is John McCain, and
    we’ve done so,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

    That was Tuesday,
    the same day that California Rep. David Dreier walked across the
    Capitol to see McCain about legislation House Republicans are trying to
    pull together to curb the influence of lobbyists.

    Not that many
    years ago, Republicans were furious at the Arizona senator for his
    ceaseless, and ultimately successful, efforts to pass legislation
    designed to reduce the impact of big money on politics.

    The high
    command in the House was doubly angry, fuming that the McCain briefly
    used the office of the Democratic leader as a base of operations to
    secure the votes of GOP rebels needed for final passage. The
    legislation had been at the core of McCain’s unexpectedly strong
    campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, when he
    drew heavy support from independent voters and swamped candidate George
    W. Bush in the leadoff New Hampshire primary.

    Bush’s response then was to unfurl a new slogan _ “Reformer with Results.” He fought back hard and went on to victory.

    It’s
    a model that the White House and congressional Republicans adapted to
    the times in 2002, when corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom and
    elsewhere exploded in the run-up to midterm elections. Legislation
    emerged from the GOP-controlled Congress with unusual haste _ and after
    unusual concessions to minority Democrats. Bush eagerly signed it.

    The
    new legislative proposals are numerous: a ban on lobbyist gifts to
    lawmakers; a prohibition on privately favored travel for lawmakers; an
    end to the practice in which former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists have
    access to the floor of the House or Senate, and more.

    This time, though, Democrats may not be such eager partners.

    Eager
    to end a decade in the minority, they staged an elaborate ceremony in
    the marbled Great Hall of the Library of Congress on Wednesday,
    unveiling legislation designed to end what they repeatedly called a
    “culture of corruption.”

    “Republicans have turned Congress into
    an auction house _ for sale to the highest bidder,” said Rep. Nancy
    Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader. “You have to pay to play,”
    she said, referring to the lobbyists.

    In an e-mail to Democrats
    posted the same day, Reid said, “What is happening today is every bit
    as corrupt as when Las Vegas was run by the mob, but the consequences
    for our country are worse.”

    Democrats are not shy about saying the scandal should help them at the polls this fall.

    “The
    issue is part of a broader (Republican) problem,” said Chuck Schumer of
    New York, the chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign committee.

    “The American people want change overwhelmingly, and the Republican Party is the party of the status quo.”

    The
    committee he leads criticized Santorum with gusto, citing the
    Pennsylvanian’s involvement with the “K Street Project,” a Republican
    attempt to prod corporations, trade associations and other groups to
    hire Republicans as lobbyists.

    McCain, the maverick now in the
    mainstream on an issue he champions, has a different perspective on the
    path that fellow Republicans are suddenly beating to his door.

    “I think it proves that if you live long enough, anything can happen,” he said.

    ___

    David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.

    © 2006 The Associated Press