McCain, Obama Scuffle over Lobbyist Reforms
ED GORDON, host:
This is NPR News.
I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES. The perception of corruption on Capitol Hill has shaken public confidence in elected officials. Both sides of the aisle have pledged to fix the problem. But that's not easy given Washington's extreme partisanship these days. Juan Williams has more on the latest mudsling episode in this week's Political Corner. Juan?
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Thanks Ed. I'm joined now by Donna Brazil former campaign manager for Democratic Presidential Nominee Al Gore in his 2000 presidential race. She now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington. Also with us is Reverend Joseph Watkins, a member of the government relations group at Buchanan Ingersoll and a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. Reverend Watkins joins us from WPHT in Philadelphia. Thanks for joining me.
Ms. DONNA BRAZIL (Former Campaign Manager): Thank you, Juan.
REVEREND JOSEPH WATKINS (Buchanan, Ingersoll): Good to be here, Juan.
WILLIAMS: Let's start with a letter that is the talk, the buzz of Washington. A letter sent to Senator Barack Obama, the Democrat from Illinois--a first term Senator--sent by Senator John McCain, the fourth term Senator, Republican from Arizona, former presidential candidate, possible potential presidential candidate heading towards '08. This was about an effort by McCain to create a bipartisan group to discuss lobbying reform. He thought he had a private commitment from Obama to join in this bipartisan group. Instead, Obama goes off because he's offered the opportunity to lead the Democrat effort at constructing a reform plan.
McCain responds and says, this is a quote, "I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit the issue must seem to a freshman Senator..." and then he goes on to continue in very sarcastic terms and say that he felt that it was a matter of a betrayal by Obama to move away from a bipartisan effort and play partisan politics. Obama responds, and here's another quote, "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 anyway diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution." Donna Brazil, what's going on here?
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Political Commentator, CNN): Well, you know, Senator McCain has a reputation of having a hot tongue. He's just a straight shooter, a straight talker. He introduced a bill back in December to help transform the Congress. His bill is called the Lobby and Transparency and Accountability Act. It has two Democratic co-sponsors, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Bill Nelson of Florida. Barak Obama has been assigned to lead the Democratic efforts. They sponsored a bill about Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006 with 40 Democratic co-sponsors, no Republican co-sponsors.
So, Mr. McCain reached out and said, look, let's get together, let's work this out. And then Barak sent him a letter, and that led to Senator McCain sending a very, very tough letter. Now, the two have since met. They both agree that there's a big misunderstanding. They want to work together and they want to move forward. The key here is that the Democratic bill will strengthen enforcement. It will eliminate the pay to play, restore some of the most restrictive rules in the past that's been put back on the books. Democrats believe that they have an opportunity to really enact strong lobbying reform. The Republicans in the House seem to be backtracking. But right now it appears that the two men have sent down, they've settled some problems, and they are going to work together.
WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins, do you really believe that they have settled it? I'm just taken by the language here. Just for the listeners, let me read more from McCain's letter. He says at one point, thank you for disabusing me for any notions--and here he's talking about bipartisanship--"I'm embarrassed to admit"--here the quote resumes--"that after all these years in politics, I've failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss, routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. I've been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for everyone of us. Good luck." That sounds pretty tough.
Rev. JOSEPH WATKINS (Member of White House Staff): It is tough. It is tough. It is tough. And John McCain, as we all know, is well known for not holding his tongue, for not biting his tongue. He's also well known for trying to put together bipartisan efforts, as Donna so well said. And this is really, I think, a great leadership effort on his part to bring Republicans and Democrats together to put together legislation that is meaning and useful, and to take the politics out of it. That's what he's trying to do more than anything else. And he thought he had a commitment from Senator Barak Obama. It's tough being a freshman Senator, it really is, especially when you've been set up the way Barak Obama has been set up.
When you are given a chance before you're even elected to keynote at the Democratic National Convention, and you are talked about in terms of being one day on the presidential ticket, you really have nowhere to go but down. I mean, it's really hard to maintain that level of superstar status without it getting tarnished. And here it is, it has been dirtied.
Now, this is not new stuff, by the way, because many of us know that last month the Washington Note reported that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid shared with the Washington Note that an unnamed Democratic Senator had come to him with a proposal on ethics reform that could be bipartisan, and Reid told the person, according to the Washington Note, he told the person that this was the wrong time to be engaged in constructive reform proposals with the other side; and he said that this was the time to draw a line and to show how our side, that is the Democrats, differ dramatically from their side. And this is unfortunate, but this is the nature of partisan politics, and Barak Obama is right in the middle of it.
WILLIAMS: So, Joe Watkins, what you're saying is that Barak Obama was really being played by both sides, that you have Reid putting pressure on him from the Democratic side; and then you have Senator McCain on the Republican side trying to use him as well, all the while his reputation is being damaged. Donna Brazile, does he get hurt? Is Barak Obama the bright shining star of the Senate now, somehow, as Joe Watkins said, dirtied?
Ms. BRAZILE: No. Let me just tell you. Barak is probably the best person to hand this type of issue. And I do believe at the end of the day we are going to get a very strong bill. The Democrats are trying to restore faith in government. The bill that they have put forward will not only strengthen the ethics reforms that are now before the Congress, but also it would create a bipartisan, non-partisan outside group of people to monitor the process. The Office of Public Integrity, that's something that Barak wants to put forward. So I think initially McCain thought that he could have this issue to himself with a couple of Democrats. Barak entered the picture, and I think it's going to work out, but the Democrats really have a case in trying to change the culture of corruption here in Washington, D.C.
WILLIAMS: I've been joined by Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. She now runs her own political consulting firm here in Washington; and Rev. Joseph Watkins, a member of the Government Relations Group at Buchanan Ingersoll and a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. Thank you both.
Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.
Mr. WATKINS: Thanks, Juan.
GORDON: Join NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams and his Beltway insiders every Thursday, right here on Political Corner.
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