By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. John McCain is a walking contradiction, antagonizing President Barack Obama over foreign policy one minute, cooperating with the Democrat the next on immigration and the budget.
So who is the real McCain?
There's the national security expert pounding the Obama administration with words like "cover-up" and "incompetence" over the deadly assault in Libya last September, snarling about the administration's lack of backbone on Syria and ripping into Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel over the Iraq war.
But there's also the Arizona lawmaker reviving his past bipartisan effort on immigration by reaching out to Obama, the man who beat him for the presidency in 2008, as well as several Senate Democrats. Frustrated with the endless cycle of fiscal crises, McCain recently was part of a small group of GOP senators to talk budget at a dinner with the president.
In the first months of the year, McCain as friend or foe has given Washington whiplash. The swings seem even more pronounced as the 76-year-old lawmaker, perhaps in his last term, relishes more independence while Obama, also unencumbered electorally, pursues an ambitious second-term agenda.
The white-haired, fast-moving McCain — presidential candidate in 2000 and 2008, and congressman and senator for some three decades — insists that he has been consistent all along, working with any president while being outspoken when he has differences with the nation's leader. Short-hand interpretations, McCain says, miss the mark of a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly.
"I will always do what I think is right whether it be Republican or Democrat president," McCain said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.
He quickly adds: "When I disagreed with George Bush on what was happening in Iraq and said (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld ought to be fired and advocated a surge and voted against Medicare part D, it was the brave maverick standing up against George Bush. When I disagree with Barack Obama on Syria, Libya and other issues, it's the grumpy old man, angry old man."
McCain said that description is the furthest from the truth.
"The last thing I am is bitter and angry. ...I've had the most full life. I would compare my life to anybody that I've ever known and it's been one of great good fortune and I'm grateful every day," said McCain.
He later ticks off a lifetime of near-death experiences — surviving the July 1967 fire and explosion on the USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors, flying into power lines in Spain, the October 1967 shoot down of his Navy aircraft and fall into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi and 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison.
Whether confrontational or conciliatory, one thing is clear: McCain is ubiquitous, front and center on nearly every issue.
He's challenged some members of Obama's national security team — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Hagel — while delivering a full-throated endorsement of his friend, Secretary of State John Kerry. He's tangled with the tea party wing of the Republican Party over cuts to defense spending and the administration's use of drones in the war on terror. He's called for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system with a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants. He's a mainstay on the Sunday talk shows.
"He's easily bored," joked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain's ever-present friend and ally.
Former McCain aides, always loyal to the boss, point to a confluence of issues this year that have always been the senator's expertise, from national security to immigration. Democrats observe that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the GOP's No. 2, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, face the constraints of re-election races next year and the need to protect their right flank from a tea party challenge.
That creates an opening for McCain, the Senate GOP's version of a free agent.
"His independence gives him more credibility really within the caucus and I think outside the caucus," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "Plus he's no shrinking violet, so he doesn't mind saying what he thinks."