KWAME HOLMAN: As California Democrat Barbara Boxer wrapped up a speech in a nearly empty Senate chamber Tuesday morning, she recognized a long-absent colleague.
SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) California: And I see the senator who has done such an amazing job in the Presidential race. I welcome him back. I thought the issues he raised were vital to be raised.
KWAME HOLMAN: It was Arizona Senator John McCain.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Mr. President, I thank my colleague from California for her kind remarks, and I appreciate, obviously, the time that I was able to spend in her great state. I hope that she appreciates the economic input that our campaign made, and I hope I can get some rebate from the numerous campaign commercials we purchased in her state.
KWAME HOLMAN: Without fanfare, former Presidential candidate John McCain was back on the Senate floor for the first time since October. He went on to speak mostly about foreign policy, then only briefly about his run for President.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I have nothing but gratitude to the American people for the privilege of serving them and for their consideration of my candidacy for President. I have incurred a debt to them that I doubt I can ever fully repay. But I intend to do what I can, working with my congressional colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, to help bring about the changes to the practices and Institutions of our democracy that they want and deserve.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCain later said his floor appearance was deliberately low- key. But his arrival at his Senate offices Monday was met by a large press contingent eager to see how he'd be received by fellow Republicans, many of whom disagree with him on some major issues and overwhelmingly backed his former rival, George W. Bush, for the Presidential nomination. That reception came formally at a closed-door policy luncheon on Tuesday. Georgia's Paul Coverdell is a member of the Senate Republican leadership.
SEN. PAUL COVERDELL, (R) Georgia: The first presenter was Senator Lott, the Majority Leader, who made a few perfunctory comments, but them made very generous statements to acknowledge that our Senator from Arizona was back amongst us. At that point, the entire caucus rose in what I would call vigorous and sustained applause. It wasn't perfunctory. It was extended, and, I think, a meaningful moment for Senator McCain.
KWAME HOLMAN: Majority Leader Lott spoke to a larger than usual horde of reporters after the lunch.
REPORTER: Did you give Senator a hero's welcome?
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: We gave Senator McCain a Senator's welcome. The Senate is an unusual place. We have personal relationships that transcend Presidential campaigns, regional considerations, philosophy, party; and Senator McCain is one of our brothers. And we did recognize his campaign, I don't know that I'd want to say exactly what I said, but I welcomed him back on behalf of the Senate Republican conference. I did say that he ran a tremendous campaign.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator McCain also came to the microphones.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I enjoyed the luncheon today. I received a very warm welcome from my colleagues and was welcomed back by the leadership and my other colleagues. And it's great to be back.
REPORTER: Senator, you've heard some of the reports that there were colleagues of yours who were a little annoyed at some of the comments that you made on the campaign trail. Do you feel that you have to mend some fences here?
KWAME HOLMAN: Those are the same comments that I have made on the floor of the Senate for the last 12 or 13 years. I'm perfectly satisfied that with the campaign that I ran, and I am very enthusiastic about the fact that millions of Americans supported my campaign and expect me to continue to represent them in Washington, in a place where they now longer represented because of the corruption that is inflicted by the influence of special interests in political campaigns and in our legislative deliberations.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCain made his only press appearance with a Senate colleague on Wednesday, standing with his longtime co-sponsor of campaign finance reform legislation, Democrat Russ Feingold. They were asked if McCain's heightened stature means Senate Republicans will change their votes and allow passage of the signature item on his reform agenda.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I believe it will.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think we can.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Senator Coverdell says the Republican-controlled Senate remains steadfast against McCain's position.
SEN. PAUL COVERDELL: In my judgment, this particular issue generates perhaps the least change in the context of his returning. I don't think views have been changed very much. I think it was a problem that he was dealing with among his own party. Clearly it had been a problem here, because he had embraced an issue that we basically felt was a view of the other party.
KWAME HOLMAN: And despite the outwardly warm welcome-back McCain got this week, the displeasure some Senate Republicans felt for him before and during his Presidential run was real, as well.
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: Well, I think oftentimes what we see is a show-boating that's really designed for the cameras, a greater interest in sound bites than sound policy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Interviewed while McCain was still an active candidate, Arkansas Republican Tim Hutchinson said McCain often offended Republican Senators by publicly chiding them for so- called pork-barrel spending.
SEN. TIM HUTSCHINSON: I think a lot of times the champion of cutting pork, there has been a lot of show-boating and inconsistency in what he's done about that that has chagrined a lot of his colleagues.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator, how do you feel the about your colleague Senator John McCain?
SEN. CONRAD BURNS, (R) Montana: I'm going to speak for me, Conrad Burns. Personally, I like John McCain.
KWAME HOLMAN: Montana's Conrad Burns has spent 12 years on the Senate Commerce Committee John McCain chairs. Burns says directness, bordering on abrasiveness, is part of McCain's military background, and he doesn't expect it to change.
SEN. CONRAD BURNS: That was a tradition of how he was raised, the naval academy, and sometimes we have problems to us that are a little more maybe free-spirited in our thoughts. But they have a structured thought. So you're not going to take him off of message and... in other words, you'll not take him off mission, because this has worked for him in the past, and I think... and he believes it will work for him and this country in the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: Though the prospects for McCain's planned legislative reform agenda may be in doubt, he clearly is in demand by Senate and House Republicans looking for help in their campaigns in the weeks and months ahead.
SEN. PAUL COVERDELL: He has a new asset here, you know. He is a celebrity.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Coverdell argues, that celebrity derives from McCain's personality, not his focus on issues that separate him from fellow Republicans, such as campaign finance reform.
SEN. PAUL COVERDELL: Many of the votes he was getting in this run for the presidency were not issue- driven...I think very few. It was celebrity status, the kind of person, what he symbolized. And I would think there's hardly a district in the country that that wouldn't be helpful. I mean, if I were up for re- election, I probably wouldn't bat an eye. I'd love to have him there.
KWAME HOLMAN: But McCain has yet to say what will be the scope of his most important piece of campaigning for nominee-apparent George W. Bush.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I am sure there are going to be other discussions going on between Governor Bush and me. There have been discussions between our people and those discussions have been cordial in nature. Obviously I do not have to agree with Governor Bush on every issue. I have said that I will support the nominee of the party. I have said that all along.
KWAME HOLMAN: And with the elections seven months away some predict the Republicans' success this fall could be determined by the coattails of John McCain.