After a losing presidential campaign in 2000, John McCain came back to the Senate and established himself as a force no White House could ignore. Eight years later, he's home from defeat again, facing a very different landscape dominated by President Barack Obama and the collapsing American economy.
From Afghanistan and Iraq to military procurement reform, McCain tells POLITICO he is already working with Obama. Last week alone, he had breakfast with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appeared with the president at a White House press event and took a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden soliciting McCain's input on how to crack down on pork barrel spending.
"These are terrible, perilous times, so I will seek ways to work with the president of the United States," McCain says in an interview. "I don't want him to fail in his mission of restoring our economy."
But there's the rub: On the central issue of the economy, the two men are so far apart it is difficult to see them collaborating effectively.
Until they are, it's harder for McCain to be the swing vote he once was - operating against a president not of his own party. McCain isn't immune to calls from prominent figures whom he admires, like Warren Buffett, who has likened the economic crisis to Pearl Harbor.
"I think that the Republicans have an obligation to recognize this as an economic war and realize you need one leader," Buffett told CNBC Monday.
To a remarkable degree for a man now 72, McCain has revamped his legislative profile: dropping the Commerce Committee he once chaired and adding three others to gain a foothold on health care and energy policy - two Obama priorities.
But on the economy, the Arizona Republican was his party's point man last month in opposing Obama's economic recovery plan. He has been scathing since in debate over a $409.6 billion omnibus spending bill before the Senate and is dismissive of the president's new budget for next year as "certainly not something I can support."
Even on areas of common ground, there are tensions. Obama's 2010 budget uses a cap-and-trade regime both to address climate change and to raise $645 billion in revenues. "It's been very harmful to the whole issue of cap-and-trade," McCain says. "I never looked at cap-and-trade as a way to increase revenues. ... Never did I envision it would be a vehicle for raising $650 billion, which would just be a tax increase on the American people."
On the central issue of stabilizing the nation's faltering banks, McCain again offers little help for Obama. When running for president, the two men voted together for the Treasury's $700 billion financial markets rescue last fall. But when both former President George W. Bush and Obama asked for the release of the second half of the money in January, McCain voted no, even as his more conservative colleague, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) supported the new president.
"We're pouring billions and billions of dollars into (banks) with not only no improvement, but their stocks continue to plummet," McCain says. "I think we have been pursuing the wrong strategy."
"There is no clear message," he says of Obama's Treasury. "They're just sort of lurching from one crisis to another, and that's the perception the American people have."
Many Republicans - and Wall Street - have been pounding Obama to come forth with a more specific commitment of resources to help the banks. But Treasury can't afford to ask Congress for more money without more confidence in having the votes.
McCain could be a tremendous asset then for the president, but he shows little willingness thus far to play this role.
"Only under circumstances which are vastly different from what they are doing now," he says. "They would have to present a blueprint that not only convinces me but frankly that convinces the Warren Buffetts and the Jack Welches ... people we would look up to who are experts who would say this plan will work. We don't hear that."
"Clearly, their policies are evolving," McCain says of Treasury. "I was supportive of their housing proposal. I didn't think it went far enough, but I was supportive of that."
"It's the housing crisis that started this conflagration, and it will be the stabilization of home values that stops it."
The past week's floor debate on the omnibus spending bill illustrates these tensions.
Filling 1,132 pages, the giant package is really nine bills in one, covering more than a dozen Cabinet-level departments and agencies for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Service are among those included - all now living under a stopgap spending bill due to expire Wednesday night.
Senate Democrats hope to send the bill to the White House before then; given the impact on government operations, the president's advisers have said he will sign the measure into law. But McCain continued Monday to hammer Obama on the floor, calling on him to veto the measure because of costly spending earmarks he had promised to do away with as a candidate last year.
"We both campaigned on change. That was the president's promise," McCain said in his interview with POLITICO. "Now they're saying this is last year's business."
The situation is reminiscent of another $397.4 billion omnibus bill in January and February of 2003. The budget process had collapsed the prior year, and after consolidating their power in the 2002 elections, Republicans crafted the bill quickly and sent it to then-President Bush, who also wanted the issue quickly resolved, since he was about to take the U.S. into war with Iraq.
Data compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste indicate that the level of earmarks in the 2003 omnibus was substantially higher than it is today. But McCain voted for the earlier package, and Senate Democrats made no attempt to block the bill, even though it cut spending for their priorities.
Asked if there was a parallel to today, McCain rejected any suggestion that he had cut one president slack and not the other.
"There are no similar circumstances to the circumstances we are facing now since the Great Depression," he said. "I strongly disagree that you can compare 2003 and 2009 in any way."
No one questions McCain's career of voting against earmarks, however he voted in 2003. But what angers him most is not the cost but the fear of corruption.
"I see it lurching completely out of control. I continue to see it breeding corruption," he says.
"Yes, I'm angry. If someone doesn't appreciate that anger or think there's something wrong with it, I respect their opinion. But it makes me angry, because I know how hard people work to pay their taxes, and this is corruption."
He spoke to Obama about the issue last week when at the White House but is still waiting for Biden to follow up on his call. "I said I'll be available any time, any place of your choosing," McCain said. "I haven't heard from him since."
"Loyal opposition in my mind means loyal, but it also means opposition where you have fundamental philosophical disagreements," he says.
"We are at a crucial time in America's history, the question of whether our economy will survive - I think there's a lot of common ground driven by this overwhelming issue of America's economy, which motivates me to work with the president and seek out ways that I can work with the president. Not to have them see me out, but I seek them out and try."
By David Rogers