McCain Makes a Deal

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Sen. McCain and his press secretary Nancy Ives

John McCain is back in line.

After making plenty of December noise about mucking up George W. Bush's first days in office with campaign finance reform, soft money's Don Quixote emerged from Trent Lott's office Friday with a deal to give the new guy time to kick off his legislative agenda with something a little more on-message.

After reaching a general agreement that Lott called "a win-win for all concerned," the majority leader gets a dose of peace, and McCain gets a number. The McCain-Feingold soft-money ban will be debated on the Senate floor in mid-to-late March, after education and quite possibly, if that goes well, the budget. And Bush, said Lott, gets "the opportunity that I thought he deserved... to roll out his agenda." Which McCain-Feingold is most definitely not on.

Tilting at windmills all over again?

Overall, the prospects for the McCain cause are a little brighter this time around. Congressmen on both sides of the aisle are polling the folks at home and finding that they remember their spring fling with the "Straight Talk Express," and that the 2000 election only reminded them how much the system can make them wince. And there's always the selfish side — all those rubber-chicken fund-raisers can really wear a lawmaker out, and some of them would actually rather be in Washington making better laws.

But like the head of steam gathering behind a big tax cut, sometimes a mandate is just an invitation for more grandstanding. Most Republicans, Bush first among them, have only the slightest flicker of interest in reform, thanks to some legitimate free-speech problems with a soft-money ban and the iron hands of Lott and chief Senate fund-raiser Mitch McConnell. (He who controls the reelection money controls many a politician, and yes, that was McConnell emceeing Bush's inaugural.) Most Democrats, chief Democratic fund-raiser Bob Torricelli first among them, find that their yen for reform tends to wane as soon as a meaningful bill is in actual danger of passage.

The McCain factor

So expect this year's battle to feature lots and lots of alternatives to McCain-Feingold from both sides of the aisle, and then lots and lots of unacceptable amendments to whatever version of it survives. Some Republicans want to package it up with electoral reform — the better to kill two birds with one stone, Democrats say. Democrats, having picked up five seats, may give the Arizona senator the numbers to keep McConnell from reading the phone book until August. But don't be surprised if they suddenly start finding things wrong with his bill.

But there's always the McCain factor. Now that Bush won, this is not just his last shot at national stardom, but a personal mission for a man who likes his politics personal. His rebelliousness tends to wax and wane, but this is a guy who promised "blood on the floor of the U.S. Senate." Just because he's decided to wait until March doesn't mean it won't be a heck of a show.