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McCain mocks Obama
February 7, 2006
BY LYNN SWEET Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) received a dressing down Monday from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who accused the freshman of using the ethics reform issue for "self-interested partisan posturing."
In a sarcastic letter, McCain accused Obama, the Senate Democrats' new lead spokesman on ethics, of not wanting to sincerely negotiate a bipartisan reform of lobbying.
Obama replied Monday that he was "puzzled" over McCain's letter and pledged to continue to work together on reform.
"I confess that I have no idea" what prompted the letter, Obama wrote Monday. "But let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing. The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem."
McCain's criticism a first
The McCain letter represents the first time any senator -- or any local, state or federal official of note from either party -- has publicly criticized Obama. He has been riding a wave of popularity, appealing to Democrats and Republicans, since summer 2004, when he gave a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
That the slap comes from the popular McCain, a champion of lobbying reform who has a history of reaching across the aisle, makes the Arizona Republican's public rebuke more significant.
McCain started his letter on a mocking note, saying he wanted to "apologize" for "assuming" Obama's private assurances of working together were sincere.
After staying above the fray for his rookie year, Obama took on his first partisan role last month by agreeing to a lead role in the Democratic ethics drive. The push comes in the wake of Republican lobbying scandals, an issue that could determine if the GOP loses control of the House or Senate in November.
"I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but pleased be assured, I won't make that same mistake again," McCain wrote.
McCain noted that an ethics reform plan he introduced with two Democrats, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, was evidence of his commitment to including "members of both parties."
McCain went on to accuse Obama of not sharing the same goal of cooperation.
"I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness," McCain wrote.
He concluded, "Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for every one of us. Good luck to you, Senator."
This rancorous episode brings together McCain, who ran for president in 2000 and may try again in 2008, and Obama, who may be eying a White House bid in the future. The letter surprised the Obama camp with its fiery tone, but McCain is known for his temper, although not for holding grudges.
Obama's new role
McCain's letter, publicly released by his office, was triggered by a letter Obama sent him last Thursday, the day after a meeting of a small working group of Democratic and Republican senators on ethics legislation. Obama was invited to the meeting in his new role as the Democratic spokesman on ethics.
In Obama's Thursday letter -- e-mailed to reporters by the office of Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- he urged McCain to swiftly advance an ethics bill co-sponsored by only Democratic senators. No mention was made of McCain's own bill.
McCain says he's not delaying
Obama accused McCain of wanting a time-consuming task force on the ethics issue.
Instead of having a "task force to further study and discuss these matters," Obama wrote that he would rather have Senate committees "roll up their sleeves and get to work."
McCain took exception to Obama's task force comment, because it made it seem, he wrote, "as if to suggest I support delaying the consideration of much-needed reforms rather than allowing the committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings on the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth."
What Obama called a task force instead was, McCain wrote, a "bipartisan working group" that could be helpful in drafting legislation.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the main committee dealing with the reform plans, told the Chicago Sun-Times that her panel is already at work on ethics.
"I don't know what more Sen. Obama is seeking," Collins said. "The committee is proceeding in a transparent and bipartisan way."
She said she was not offended if McCain wanted to put together a working group on the side and was "surprised and disappointed to hear about Sen. Obama's letter.... This would have been the last thing that I expected."
Obama phones McCain
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs denied that Democratic leaders pressured Obama last week to write the letter. Obama, for his part, insisted one of the things about the Senate he values the most is the collegiality.
"It was in this spirit that I approached you," Obama wrote McCain on Monday, "to work on ethics reform."
Obama placed a call to McCain's office Monday afternoon, but the two never connected. By Monday night, they still had not talked.