Senate gets the start of a thaw

McCain at center of bipartisan shift

In a twist of irony, Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican standard-bearer who tried harder than anyone to prevent Barack Obama from becoming president, has suddenly emerged as a deal maker, potentially helping salvage aspects of Obama’s second-term agenda.
J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press
In a twist of irony, Senator John McCain (above), the 2008 Republican standard-bearer who tried harder than anyone to prevent Barack Obama from becoming president, has suddenly emerged as a deal maker, potentially helping salvage aspects of Obama’s second-term agenda.

WASHINGTON — US senators from both political parties who are fed up with bickering and gridlock are showing signs of forming a moderate center in the fractious chamber, an effort to restore a sense of comity where the norm has been conflict.

Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate who failed to block Barack Obama from winning the White House, has emerged as a potential dealmaker in this fragile initiative, in a twist of irony that could help put Obama’s second term on a more positive path. McCain, of Arizona, has been holding private meetings at the White House and appears to relish being seen once again as a maverick willing to reach across the aisle.

“It’s better,” McCain told the Globe of the mood in the Senate. “We stared at the abyss and took a step back.”


Recent agreements have ranged from topics as far-reaching as immigration to as basic as presidential nominees. On Wednesday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan compromise on student loans. And McCain has joined with one of the most liberal senators, Elizabeth Warren, on a sweeping financial regulations bill.

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Before anyone gets too excited about a possible Senate shift, it is worth recognizing the new atmosphere has its limits: major agreements on immigration and the farm bill have yet to become law, in part because House Republicans are less willing to compromise than their Senate counterparts.

The Senate also has rejected other compromises, most prominently legislation to enhance background checks and tighten gun control laws. And the biggest test on whether the latest agreements are a passing phase or part of a sustained trend will arrive after the summer recess, when debate resumes on raising the nation’s borrowing limit. That topic has repeatedly bedeviled Washington, contributing to plummeting approval ratings for Congress and placing what economists say is a drag on the economy.

But for those who have been calling for a more cooperative tone in the Senate, the past several weeks have brought hopeful signs.

“I do see glimmerings of hope for a more civil bipartisanship that concentrates on solving problems rather than scoring political points,” said Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has been part of a more moderate group of senators.


Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said he almost didn’t run for a second term in 2012 because he had grown so frustrated with the place.

“You know, at some point you have to ask yourself, is this worth a grown man’s time?” he recalled thinking. He decided to return, and this year has been at the center of several of the key deals that have been cut.

“So far, 2013 has been the most gratifying year of my Senate career,” he said in an interview.

A few weeks ago, senators came to an agreement on immigration, with 14 Republicans joining with Democrats to approve legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants while also tightening border controls. Last week, they came to a compromise after Republicans agreed to stop stalling on several of President Obama’s nominees and Democrats agreed not to change filibuster rules.

This year, the Senate also passed a farm bill, which included funding for food stamps, and for the first time in four years passed a budget. They also came to an agreement on student loans — much to the dismay of Warren and other liberal Democrats who opposed the deal and argued that not all compromise is good.


“It feels good to get things done around here in a bipartisan way,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said of the student loan compromise, which she opposed. “But that doesn’t mean because it’s called bipartisan, it’s the right thing to do.”

‘You know, at some point you have to ask yourself, is this worth a grown man’s time? ’

On Wednesday, the Senate voted down several amendments, including one cosponsored by Warren, and by an overwhelmingly bipartisan 81-to-18 vote approved the student loan bill.

Now, there’s work ongoing with the White House over a debt ceiling deal, with several Senate Republicans meeting regularly with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.

“I think there’s collective embarrassment that everything is a partisan battle and our approval rating is about 9 percent,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who helped cut the deal on the student loan legislation.

“Nothing happens unless you have votes from both sides,” King added. “It’s simple arithmetic. You can link arms and be passionate and make great points but you have to have both sides to get something done.”

Several senators said a key moment was a 3½-hour discussion that took place last week inside the old Senate chambers. Nearly all senators were present, and Democrats and Republicans took turns rising to speak.

They were trying to resolve a standoff between the two top leaders. Senate majority leader Harry Reid was threatening to change the rules of the Senate, making it harder for Republicans to filibuster, unless Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell agreed to allow votes on several of Obama’s nominees.

“It was helpful for all of us to hear the way the other guys look at the world, and the way they look at some of the perceived dysfunction; and it was helpful for them to hear the way we look at it,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “You find a compromise, it encourages more of it.”

The two new Massachusetts senators — Warren and Edward Markey — are among the most liberal duos in the chamber, and have not been at the center of some of the latest dealmaking. They both opposed the compromise student loan legislation.

But Warren has joined with McCain in new legislation to tighten banking regulations under an updated version of the Glass-Steagall Act, which would prevent commercial banks from engaging in investment activities.

“She’s tough,” McCain said of Warren.

Polls show that Americans blame Republicans more for the partisanship than they do Obama. In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 48 percent of those surveyed said that Obama emphasizes a partisan approach over unifying the country. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said the same about the Republican Party.

A report released earlier this year by the Republican National Committee, drawing lessons from the 2012 election losses, concluded that the party was seen as “not welcoming and inclusive” and needed to broaden its appeal.

Former senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, suffered from attacks that he was part of McConnell’s conservative team even as he tried to portray himself as a moderate willing to cut deals. He lost by 8 points to Warren.

McConnell — who famously said in 2010 his most important job was to ensure Obama was a one-term president — has been remarkably adept for the past several years at keeping his Republican conference united in opposition to most everything Democrats propose.

They held the line in voting against Obama’s health care law, against the financial regulation legislation, and against the stimulus.

But McConnell has a Tea Party challenger in his 2014 reelection bid, which is forcing him to take more conservative positions.

The circumstances created an opening for McCain to begin reaching out to Democrats, hoping to cut a deal. One frequent partner has been Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the third highest-ranking Senator.

“By the end of last year the senators shared the disgust about the Senate that the public had,” said Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and the author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.” “I think what we have seen this year is somewhat of a return to a more normal politics.”

“Someone said to me, ‘Yeah, they’re recovering. They were 12 feet underwater, and now it’s 10,’ ” he added. “But I think there are some positive signs.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.