The question facing Senate Republicans: Are they ready to embrace their presidential nominee’s more liberal ideas for climate change ideas like a cap-and-trade system, or will they stick to the conservative, hands-off approach to global warming backed by President Bush?
It’s a debate that may very well divide Senate Republicans and show voters yet another fissure in an already beleaguered party. Democrats don’t seem eager to offer a smooth path toward any bipartisan compromise that would give McCain political cover on the issue, and a key procedural vote has already been scheduled for June 2.
On global warming and other issues, McCain’s office is engaged in an intensive behind-the-scenes message coordination effort with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), whose press office holds daily phone calls to map out the message of the day.
Every Tuesday, McCain’s senior advisers meet with GOP senators at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to chart their agenda. And about once a week, McCain himself chats with McConnell.
Republicans say the task of unifying GOP senators with McCain is akin to herding cats — and it points to the party’s larger national problem with presenting a unified message.
“Have you noticed it’s hard to coordinate anything with Sen. McCain?” asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I don’t know if we can ever sing off the same sheet of music, but in terms of subject matter, we are trying to coordinate and do some of the Greek chorus stuff with him.”
Last week, a significant number of Senate Republicans bucked Bush by voting both to override his veto of the Farm Bill and to support a GI Bill introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). McCain didn’t vote, but he made it clear that he agreed with Bush’s positions on both measures.
By contrast, the debate on a bipartisan climate change bill sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) offers McCain a chance to stake out a position different from the president’s and see if his party will follow. The catch is that many Republicans are uncomfortable with McCain’s talk of a cap-and-trade program for reducing carbon emissions.
“John McCain was into climate change before it was cool,” Graham said. “But that’s the one issue where the majority of the conference may go the other way.”
Conservatives hope that McCain will back a more market-based approach rather than the government mandates on carbon emissions that are part of the central Senate proposal.
“We’re starting to see a coming together on energy,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “Hopefully, he can help us find a position between Warner-Lieberman and where we are as conservatives.”
But in this internal debate, one can already see a distinct change in the Republican outlook — conservatives are trying to figure out legislative options on global warming rather than simply playing defense and mocking environmentalists on the topic. The global warming deniers have taken a back seat.
“You’ve already seen the shift on energy and climate change,” said one GOP Senate aide. “You’re not going to see tax breaks for oil companies. You’ll see us talking more about climate change, where we didn’t before.”
If the votes on the GI Bill and the Farm Bill were setbacks for both McCain and Bush, there have been other areas where McCain’s campaign has clearly been able to influence Senate Republican actions.
In a separately choreographed effort, McCain’s campaign coordinated a Republican Senate assault on Barack Obama’s proposal to raise capital gains taxes. As soon as Obama raised the issue, McCain&rsqo;s campaign exchanged e-mails and phone calls with McConnell’s office, and the GOP was able to pile on Obama’s proposal with a rapid response.
And earlier this month, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) took to the floor to pump up McCain’s May 6 speech promising more conservative judicial nominees, an effort to reach out to a conservative base that cares deeply about judicial appointments.
With the Democratic nomination race dragging on, Republicans realize that they’ve been given a free pass to work out the kinks in their message and lay the foundation for a general election strategy.
“We’ve had two months to work out logistics for syncing up our message,” said one Senate Republican aide. “This is in contrast to both the Clinton and Obama campaigns’ inability to do so due to the protracted primary.”
But there is a fundamental question looming for the old bulls of the Senate: Can you suddenly embrace the guy you disliked for so long just out of political expedience?
In his 22 years in the Senate, McCain has bruised some egos and made some enemies within. So part of his campaign’s coordination with the GOP Senate Conference is about mending fences with Republicans with whom he’s clashed over the years.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who has called McCain a “hothead,” has warmed up to his party’s candidate. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who engaged in a well-publicized physical confrontation with McCain back in 1992, has donated money to the McCain campaign.
DeMint says the party needs to provide a unified front, however tough that may be for conservatives to do with McCain.
“It’s coming together,” DeMint said. “I’m looking forward to someone pulling us together.”
The McCain campaign says it takes a lot of work to get everyone on the same page.
“We work collaboratively with the other Republicans to make sure they know what our message is and we know what they’re going to be doing,” McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “From a message standpoint, this is always going to be a challenge, because there are so many messages.”
Bounds says it may actually be good for McCain if he continues to show some independence from his party and President Bush, even if it means striking a discordant note at times.
“There are always going to be differences of opinion, but he’s going to be a leader on the issues, and eventually there will be members on board,” Bounds said. “He’s not going to be in lock step with either caucus.”