Tuesday, March 10, 2009

McCain, still center stage in U.S., battles big spending

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John McCain lost the 2008 U.S. presidential election to Barack Obama but has since won a leading role in Republican efforts to rein in Obama's big-spending economic revival plans.

In the past week, the Arizona senator helped head a Republican charge in the Democratic-led Senate that stalled a $410 billion bill to keep government operations funded through the end of this fiscal year, September 30.

"If it sounds like I'm angry it's because I am," McCain roared on the Senate floor. But after plenty of fiery debate, the bill was expected to win final congressional approval in the Senate on Tuesday and go to Obama to sign into law.

"I think it probably will (be passed) but I think we fought a good fight," McCain, 72, told Fox News on Sunday.

McCain complained the bill was packed with thousands of unneeded pet projects known as "earmarks", including measures to research pig odor, build a rodeo museum and construct wolf breeding facilities. Pledges to end such earmarks were central to McCain's Republican presidential campaign.

A frequent guest on TV talk shows, McCain appeared on Monday on CNBC where he again attacked Obama's policies. "We see the stock market continue to drop because of the message that is being sent, including, by the way, wasteful and unnecessary and excessive spending," McCain said.

Some Republicans targeted the spending bill because it relaxed certain limits on trade and travel to communist-run Cuba. But McCain's chief concerns were closer to home, focusing on the price tag and the "earmarks".

"McCain is trying to reestablish his bona fides as the Republican Party leader at a time when there really isn't a Republican leader," said Paul Light of New York University's Center for the Study of Congress.

"I don't think he's laying foundation for another White House run, but he is claiming center stage and laying down markers to judge Obama by," Light said.

Many Republicans in Congress quickly embraced outspoken opposition to Obama's plans. "Republicans are a lot more united and willing to take on the majority than usual so soon after a big election loss," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"Usually a party takes time to lick their wounds," Hess said. "They have moved quickly beyond that to be the party of opposition."


Hess said McCain had the celebrity status to take on the Democratic "superstar" Obama, who rode to the White House on a wave of popularity at home and abroad and still had very high poll ratings despite the deepening economic crisis.

McCain, 72, who survived five and one-half years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, seems too old for another White House bid. But he plans to seek reelection next year to a fifth Senate term.

Dubbed a "maverick", McCain has often bucked Republican Senate leadership. And while he holds no elected leadership post, he is seen as a force by members of both parties.

"McCain has returned to be a strong and effective voice that Democrats hate when they disagree with him but praise when they agree with him," a Republican leadership aide said.

McCain was among those in Congress who pressured Obama to scale-back an emergency economic stimulus package to $787 billion from earlier highs of upward of $900 billion.

He denounces Obama's proposed $3.55 trillion budget as a blueprint for the greatest transfer of power from the private sector to the federal government since the administration of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt over 60 years ago.

McCain has also reached across the political aisle to introduce legislation, including a bill backed by Obama to reduce the cost of prescription drug prices by allowing them to be imported from approved foreign facilities.

But he has made it clear that the Democrats will have to overcome his high-profile objections to big spending, taking on such Obama initiatives including a proposed bailout of the struggling U.S. financial sector.

"I don't think they made the hard decision and that is to let these banks fail," McCain told a weekend TV news program.

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