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Sen. John McCain Discusses Partisan Divide in Congress, Future of the GOP

July 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With Congress divided by partisanship, Sen. John McCain has stepped up as a dealmaker between Democrats and Republicans in order to make progress and avoid political showdowns on important legislation. Gwen Ifill talks to the Arizona Republican about his role as a mediator between Republicans and the Obama administration.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. McCain, thank you for joining us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You seem to be in the middle of everything right now. You’re in the middle of immigration reform. You’re in the middle of financial regulation reform. You’re in the middle of the debt limit debate which is about to kick off again. How did that happen?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I’ve been involved in these issues for a long time, as you know, Gwen. But it seems that sometimes things sort of ripen and mature and are ready for action. I — honestly, I think it’s the result of years of association with other members of the Senate that are in the decision-making role. And so these issues come to fruition. And if your there when they’re ready to be acted on, then that’s sort of what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Does it worry you at all that someone like Harry Reid, the Democratic leader who once said, “I can’t stand John McCain,” is suddenly praising you on the floor of the Senate? He was praising you on the NewsHour last week. Does that — is that good or bad for you?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I’m sure that — I’m sure that in some parts of Arizona maybe I hope they didn’t hear it. But Harry Reid and I came to the House together in the election of 1982. And then we came to the Senate together in the election of 1986. So we have a very long relationship. And of course, we are of different philosophies and different parties. And we’ve had our collisions. But I think the fundamental aspect of our relationship is that I respect Harry Reid and I think he respects me. And if you have that basis, then you can work together.

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GWEN IFILL: Was that always so?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Oh, I think there were times when there was anger, but I don’t think we ever lost respect. I went up to Nevada and campaigned for his opponent. It took a while for (laughs) — for Harry to get over that. But I — we’ve always maintained a level of respect, not the same level of affection. (Chuckles.)

GWEN IFILL: As you well know, many Americans look at the United States Senate with distain and it could not be less popular — maybe the House is less popular than the Senate right now. It’s hard to tell. You have said recently that the Senate stared into the abyss and pulled back. What did — what did you mean when you said that?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, if we had turned the Senate into a 51-vote body, there really been — would have been nothing unique about the United States Senate and we would have taken away or deprived the American people of the fundamental role of the Senate which, I believe it was Jefferson, said that — the saucer that cools the tea or the coffee, something like that, that it’s the role of the minority in the Senate is preserved and without that, then I think you turn — might as well have 535 members in one body — 435 House members and 100 Senate members.

And if we had gone forward with that and gone to 51 votes in consideration of nominations, it wouldn’t have been long before we have done it with legislation and judges, et cetera. And in retaliation, at least in the short term, the whole Senate would have been shut down because there are many ways to shut down the Senate. And the relations would have been bitter for a long, long time.

Every majority and minority leader, whether it be Republican or Democrat, I have seen have tried to work together. They’ve worked against each other philosophically, but to make the Senate run efficiently, you have to have a working relationship between the two leaders.

GWEN IFILL: That meeting where 98 members of the Senate got into the old Senate chamber with no staff, no cameras rolling, no outsiders, was that pivotal?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I thought it was a very important moment. I think that the majority understood the concerns of the minority and vice versa. I think it was an important moment. I also think that the closer we got to it, and the more members carefully examined the consequences of this, there was a certain drawing back as well. And the joint meeting of Republican and Democrat senators sort of crystalized that.

GWEN IFILL: If the Senate is talking to each other a little bit more now, what about the House? You passed an immigration bill with a lot of effort here in the Senate. And now it doesn’t sound like the House is particularly interested in dealing with the Senate version.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think there are many that are very interested. Speaker Boehner has talked of his desire to get legislation passed. Paul —

GWEN IFILL: He’s also said the Senate version is not going to happen.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Yeah, but all we’re asking is that they pass legislation and we go to conference. Paul Ryan, our vice presidential candidate, has been strongly in favor of acting on the issue. I think that the August recess, Gwen, is going to be an impact point in time.

The members are going home. They’re going to be with their constituents for a lot of this coming month of August. And I hope that we can get the message to them that we would like to act. And I say that in the most respectful way. If we do not act on this issue, I think that we are in fundamental agreement on one aspect of it, and that is you leave 11 million people in a limbo status in one respect, and you have de facto amnesty in the other respect because they aren’t going — we’re not going to round up 11 million people and send them out of the country.

GWEN IFILL: A lot of these House members, many of whom are loyal to the tea party wing of their party, go home and hear the opposite: Don’t you dare do that.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think that the tea party is a very influential element of our party, but I also think that they’re going to go home and they’re going to hear from the evangelical community, which is entirely support, the Chamber of Commerce, small business, large business, manufacturers. It is the broadest coalition of support for this legislation than I have ever seen on any piece of legislation since I’ve been here. So I hope they hear from them as well.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the debt limit fight. We’ve been through this before. You now are warning against shenanigans which might stop this from happening. What is your sense of where that stands right now?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think it’s obviously gridlocked right now. And one of the reasons why we have such low approval is Americans get tired of this brinksmanship of workers maybe being laid off and the Grand Canyon being shut down and all of the consequences of this. As we near the edge again, I believe we will reach an agreement. I don’t know exactly how now.

We’ve also — get this sequestration, which is devastating our military and other aspects, nonmilitary side. Could I just give you a small example? We just had 19 brave firefighters die in the Yarnell, Arizona, as you know, and the budget next year, because of the sequestration, is going to cut fire suppression by some $140 million. How can we justify that to the American people, and the people in the West especially that are subject to these horrible forest fires?

GWEN IFILL: But how do you replace sequestration or find some way to skirt this debate without leaving on the table the possibility of raising taxes which is anathema (to so many)?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Here’s the question, I think, that it is one of the questions that needs to be answered. Do we do sequestration and the debt limit or the grand bargain at the same time maybe not necessarily the debt limit, but the grand bargain or do we do them separately. As you know, an improving economy has relief relieved a small amount of pressure on the debt limit. But still, it’s out there. It’s just been moved by a certain period of time.

We need Republicans and Democrats and we — I’m not — there’s a group of us that are meeting and working and talking with the White House, and it’s slow, and my fear is — but I’m — I have to get you some straight talk — that we may go to the edge of the cliff again, and the American people are tired of that.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Mike Lee, one of your Republican colleagues, is talking about getting rid of “Obamacare” and holding any deal hostage to that. Is that something that would derail everything?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I don’t think he has significant support even amongst Republican senators. I think it’s 12 or 13 or 14 or something like that out of the 45 of us. There’s some of us who saw that movie before, and we know who suffers when that you approach that position. But so I just think it’s a nonstarter, clearly.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned that you had been talking to the White House about this. You’ve been trying to find — what can we call it? — compromise, compromise, that word that is back again. How did that happen? It was not long ago where you said you and the president had no relationship whatsoever. What changed?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think, first of all, the president and I have always had a relationship, and we’ve had several meetings. For example, after the tragedy of the shooting in Tucson, he came to Arizona and gave a really wonderful statement and helped the healing, and there have been areas where we have worked together.

But it’s very clear to the president that he is in his legacy time. He’s not going to run for office again, and he is concerned about his legacy, whether it be closing Guantanamo Bay or the grand bargain or whether it be immigration reform — there’s a number of issues that the president would like to see results on. And many — a number of those, I am in agreement with him, so —

GWEN IFILL: So you think that he has changed, not you?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think, obviously look, when I was railing against President Bush and voting against his tax cuts and saying that Rumsfeld ought to be fired and a number of other things, I was the brave maverick taking on his own party. So now, when we have a Democrat in the White House, who I lost to and take him on on Obamacare and other issues now he’s the angry, bitter old man. It’s neither is true. I’m just a person here carrying on a legacy that was handed down to me by a number of greater leaders than me, including Bob Dole, that looking for solutions to problems.

And so I want to work with the president where I can. And there are many areas where we do not agree fundamentally, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work with the president of the United States. And the American people want us to do that. There’s such a thing as compromise without betraying principle.

GWEN IFILL: How many times would you say you talk to the president or someone at the White House every week?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: It depends on what’s going on. If it’s if there’s nothing going on, I don’t talk to them, because I don’t take their time. If it’s something like this thing we just went through on the…

GWEN IFILL: Executive nomination?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Averting the filibuster nuclear option sometimes three or four times a day. And on immigration reform, there was frequent calls also. But most of the work that I do is with colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

GWEN IFILL: Like Chuck Schumer, who no one, I don’t know; I’ve been watching the House and Senate for a while, and I never thought of you two as close friends.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, we’ve worked together on a number of issues, including a previous reform on nominations, on immigration on this and other issues.

GWEN IFILL: But the…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think Chuck Schumer, Chuck Schumer, I’m not saying he’s changed, but I am saying this: that Chuck Schumer had a job when he was chair of the senatorial campaign committee for them. Chuck Schumer is now in the leadership. And I think that Chuck Schumer has reached out to try to work with Republicans, and we have been receptive to that. And I must say, one, he’s a very smart guy, and two, his word is good. And Gwen, that is a much rarer commodity around here than you would than you would think.

GWEN IFILL: I think you used to say that about Ted Kennedy, too.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: He is Kennedy-esque in those respects.

GWEN IFILL: Do you see the comeback of the GOP moderate that everybody said was dead not long ago?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I think that there is a comeback amongst GOP senators that see the low approval ratings that we have that see the disapproval and almost contempt that people hold us in because of our failure to act, and I think it’s not so much moderates some of the people who have been in these negotiations are (utmost) conservative. It’s not so much moderate as it is people who are result-oriented.

Could I just mention Bob Corker and Hoeven? Neither one of them are viewed as, quote, “moderate.” They are strong conservatives, but they are result-oriented.

GWEN IFILL: I think Bob Corker, the senator from Tennessee, said he was thinking about not running again, he was so depressed about where the Senate was. But it feels like it’s changed.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: But he’s emerged as an important.  I won’t say dealmaker, but an important part of the discussion and the results. And so is Hoeven. But so is Susan Collins and so is Kelly Ayotte and so is Lindsey Graham. And so there’s a large number of people. And by the way, I have been given some credit for this latest thing, but it was a collective effort. It wasn’t John McCain; it was all those people I just mentioned to you and more who were engaged in constant conversations, and so I don’t take credit for it. I give them credit.

GWEN IFILL: As the former nominee of your party, and having watched 2012 from the sidelines been obviously to 2008 as you look forward to 2016, do you think that the party survives or has another shot at the White House only if the kinds of things you’re talking about really take root? The return of the moderate? The reaching across aisles? The bipartisan cooperation?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Yes. I think Americans want that from the Republican Party, but they also want results, OK? They want they want something that Republicans can go to the people and say, look, we passed a balanced budget amendment. OK, I don’t think that’s outrageous that we got the XL pipeline done, that we cut your taxes, that we did the things that we promised we would do.

So it’s not you just can’t go to the electorate and say, we blocked everything that President Obama was trying to do. I think you got to show them some positive results and some positive vision for the future.

And I’ll say one other thing to you: If we don’t enact immigration reform, I don’t, let’s say we enact it, comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t think it gains a single Hispanic voter, but what it does, it puts us on a playing field where we can compete for the Hispanic voter.

If we don’t do that, frankly, I don’t see, I see further polarization of the Hispanic voter and the demographics are clear that the Republican Party cannot win a national election. That’s just a fact.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. McCain, thank you so much for talking with us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Thanks for coming over today. And it’s nice to have you here in my humble office.