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CongressNow: McCain Was ‘Determined’ on Senate Panel

As chairman of one of the Senate’s most powerful committees, Sen. John McCain earned a reputation for doggedness and stubbornness. But sources who worked closely with McCain during his tenure as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said that while he was at times blustery and sometimes shot from the hip, the Arizona Republican was an intellectually curious, evenhanded chairman who wanted to write good policy.

One former leadership aide who worked closely with the panel said McCain was willing to hold hearings or push a bill forward even if other lawmakers hadn’t signed off yet.

“Determined was the word that comes to my mind for me to characterize his chairmanship. He seemed less distracted and viewed time as always being in short supply,” the former GOP aide said. “He was an impatient legislator. He was willing to do a bill, and if it needed to be fixed and amended, he would offer to do it in the next Congress.”

The committee, which has broad jurisdiction over such diverse sectors as aviation and telecommunications, is frequently called on to sort out winners and losers. Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association, said he did not see McCain as a champion of one industry over another.

“He was never considered to be the key Senator for broadcasters or cable,” May said. “He had positions on both sides. He took positions on the merits.”

May, who worked previously as executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said McCain could be an extremely formidable opponent when he disagreed with your position. May recounted how he and McCain had crossed swords over how to make telecommunications spectrum available for the transition to digital broadcasting.

He said that McCain gave him a “fair hearing and even shake” and that did not come to regret the disagreement later. “Absolutely not. I have been working cooperatively and butting heads with Sen. McCain for 25 years,” May said. “He has always been a fierce defender of his views.”

McCain took a pragmatic approach to crafting policy, according to sources. And while McCain has faced criticism from GOP colleagues for his maverick positions, sources said McCain’s views were rooted in conservative philosophy and that gave him a certainty about his stances.

One lobbyist who previously worked for the committee recalled a dispute with the airline industry in which McCain threatened to advance passengers’ rights legislation. The lobbyist said that threatening heightened regulation was not an obvious move for a Republican with a “conservative, libertarian perspective,” but the end result was voluntary concessions from the industry, including a code of conduct.

“In the first instance, it was Sen. McCain who said, ‘if you don’t do it, we’ll do it for you,’” the lobbyist said.

McCain similarly threatened legislation for steroid testing in Major League Baseball after holding a hearing on the issue in 2004. His efforts forced baseball and its fans to confront suspicions of widespread steroid use in the sport. McCain also sponsored legislation to create a boxing commission.

For all the grief an industry or interest might have taken from Chairman McCain, the lobbyist said, industry benefited from a chairman and staff that took their issues seriously. “Is he stubborn? Yes. Are there issues that are an unrebuttable presumption? Yes,” the lobbyist said. “But he does have staff who are willing to listen to you.”

McCain’s tenure as chairman ran from 1997 to 2005, with an interruption in 2001 and 2002 when Democrats took the Senate majority.

During that span, the committee tended to core jurisdictional issues such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission. The panel also helped revamp aviation security and create the Department of Homeland Security, although control of the committee was under Democratic control at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

One of McCain’s biggest committee efforts was moving a multibillion dollar tobacco bill out his committee in 1998 by a 19-1 vote. The package collapsed on the Senate floor in the face of GOP opposition and a fierce lobbying campaign. McCain pursued campaign finance reform, another signature issue, through legislative channels outside of the committee.

McCain was continually watching for emerging issues, sometimes prompting grumbling about McCain seeking the media spotlight. One former committee aide said that when McCain returned to the Senate after his unsuccessful 2000 run for the GOP presidential nomination, he brought with him a good sense of public opinion, lending a “populist touch” to his issue agenda.

“The Senator has a very voracious appetite for knowledge. Every morning, the Senator would have four newspapers in front of him, reading them from top to bottom,” the former aide said.

The aide said McCain challenged committee staffers to make their best case for a given policy position and freed them from worrying about how a policy stance might affect an influential donor or constituency. “I think he tried to do what he thought was the right thing to do.”

The former leadership aide said that despite the attention McCain attracted and despite his strong issue stances, McCain would encourage internal debate about issues and appreciated the role that his staff played.

“I think that fighter pilot culture is inside his approach as chairman. Sure, a fighter pilot catapulted off an aircraft carrier has full confidence in their own individual ability because they are now on their own and on their individual mission. But that pilot also needs and wants a team approach to maintain the aircraft and to catch him when he returns,” the source said. “He understood and recognized their role, but the fighter pilot ethos isn’t always free in acknowledging this bigger team like the committee that was essential to Sen. McCain’s [committee] success.”