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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to spend some time this morning dissecting the record of Senator John McCain. If you listen to Democrat Barack Obama, McCain amounts to a third term of President Bush. McCain backs the Iraq War and embraced President Bush on the campaign trail in 2004. Of course, McCain also challenged President Bush on issue after issue over the years.

And there is one major issue on which McCain stood against the president before standing with him. That issue is tax cuts. NPR's David Welna covers Congress, and he reports on that part of the long record of the senator from Arizona.

DAVID WELNA: If you examine Senator John McCain's record during the Bush presidency, you'll find he's been even more loyal to the president than to his fellow GOP senators. But McCain's also been seriously at odds with the president on several key issues, and Claremont McKenna College Congressional expert Jack Pitney expects that would continue to be the case in a McCain presidency.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Congressional Expert, Claremont McKenna College): John McCain's position on the environment, for instance, is very different from that of the Bush administration, and one would expect a lot more attention to issues such as global warming. McCain, obviously, has been a supporter of campaign finance reform, and would continue to do so in the White House.

WELNA: McCain also backs stem cell funding, which Mr. Bush opposed. And when the president supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, McCain voted against it. But McCain's greatest act of apostasy came during the first year of this Bush presidency. That's when he was one of just two Senate Republicans to vote against the president's one-and-a-third trillion-dollar tax cut package.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): We are about to enact one of the most massive tax cuts in memory or history, and we do not have any idea how much money is going to be devoted to defense spending and how much is going to be left over for it.

WELNA: Two years later, on the day before the U.S. invaded Iraq, McCain declared on the Senate floor he could not vote for a second package of tax cuts worth $350 billion, most of which went to wealthy investors.

Sen. McCAIN: I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of tax cuts, irrespective of their size or to which segment of the population they are targeted.

WELNA: But the tax cuts were hugely popular with President Bush's Republican base, even as budget surpluses collapsed into enormous deficits. As the president prepared for his 2004 reelection bid, he told a crowd the 10-year tax plans approved by Congress still fell short.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress needs to make all aspects of the tax code permanent so people can plan their businesses and their lives.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: McCain remained the stubborn holdout. That same year, here's what he told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Sen. McCAIN: I voted against the tax cuts because of the disproportional amount that went to the wealthiest Americans. I would clearly support not extending those tax cuts in order to help address the deficit.

WELNA: But once McCain began campaigning to be President Bush's successor, he dramatically changed his stance on those tax cuts.

(Soundbite of radio advertisement)

Sen. McCAIN: I'll make the Bush tax cuts permanent, reduce taxes on 25 million middle class families...

WELNA: That's from a radio ad the McCain campaign aired in January. Since then, McCain has continued proclaiming his newfound fealty to the Bush tax cuts. Fellow Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who's often mentioned as a possible McCain running mate, applauds the about face.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): I think he recognizes that, you know, to allow these tax cuts to expire would be an equivalent of a tax increase at a time when the economy is really struggling. And so he believes - and I think rightly so - that extending the tax relief is important to, you know, the economy expanding and continuing to create jobs.

Prof. PITNEY: Obviously, this is McCain moving in the direction of Bush.

WELNA: Again, Claremont McKenna's Jack Pitney.

Prof. PITNEY: John McCain's position can either be described as a flip-flop if you're opposed to him, or as an evolution if you're a supporter of him. But if he had remained a strong critic of tax cuts, it's quite possible he wouldn't have won the Republican nomination in the first place. There are a lot of economic conservatives who regard his earlier position as a deal breaker.

WELNA: McCain is even proposing new tax cuts with the biggest benefits going to the top one-tenth of one percent of households, with little relief of the bottom three-fifths of taxpayers. In a phone call with reporters, Jason Furman, who's Obama's new top economic adviser, thwacked McCain thusly.

Mr. JASON FURMAN (Top Economic Adviser, Senator Obama): People sometimes describe John McCain as a third term of George Bush. I think when it comes to tax policy, that's actually unfair to President Bush. John McCain's tax policy is far more radical.

WELNA: At the very least, it's a radical departure from the John McCain, who voted against both Bush tax cuts.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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