John McCain

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I attended an American Spectator dinner last night featuring John McCain. McCain spent much of the evening casting votes in the Senate, but returned and spoke with impressive energy and at considerable length. He said it was fine if everything was on the record. Those who think that McCain is still smoldering with anger at George W. Bush over the 2000 campaign should think again: McCain spoke fervently and with obvious sincerity about how much he admires Bush and the job he has been doing as president.

McCain addressed two issues that have the potential to divide the Republican base: spending and immigration.

On spending, he said that to offset the spending of Hurricane Katrina and to prevent what "may be the largest deficit in history," Congress should revisit the highway bill—the big transportation bill passed earlier this year—and should consider delaying or repealing the Medicare prescription drug bill. On both of these issues his positions are to the right of the Bush administration's: After all, Bush signed both bills.

McCain's position on the highway bill is consistent with his longstanding and mostly futile attacks on pork barrel spending, but he has more allies this time: Members of Congress like Sen. Richard Shelby and (!) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have said they'd delay spending on projects in their state or district. The pork-busters movement of which I have written may be gathering momentum.

As for the Medicare prescription-drug bill, Democrats have been trashing this legislation persistently, and it isn't very popular in the polls. The prescription-drug benefit is scheduled to go into effect next year. Republicans passed this bill because Bush and House Republicans didn't want to go into the 2004 election cycle as opponents of a prescription-drug benefit. But now they don't see it as much of a political plus. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The other issue that threatens to divide the Republican base is immigration. On this issue McCain stands to the left of the administration. He is the cosponsor, with Edward Kennedy, of one of the two major legislative vehicles on the issue; the other is cosponsored by his Arizona colleague Jon Kyl and Texas Republican John Cornyn. A major difference between the bills is that Kyl-Cornyn would require illegal immigrants wishing to legalize their status to return to their countries of origin and McCain-Kennedy would not.

Arizona is the state through which thousands of illegal immigrants have been coming across the border, and McCain speaks with visible anger at the spectacle of illegals roaming across the desert and dying of thirst. "The borders are broken." To those who favor the Kyl-Cornyn return provision, he says, "We have 11 million illegals. Are we going to send them back? I don't think so." Allowing people to legalize their status and then take their place in line is "not my definition of amnesty."

In response to my question, McCain suggested he was flexible on the issue and willing to compromise on various provisions. He even said he was willing to address first the status of agriculture workers, on which a bipartisan compromise has already been worked out by California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman. White House sources believe it is inevitable that Congress will have to address the issue. McCain will be a major player, and the White House could have no stronger advocate of whatever Congress works out than John McCain.

McCain of course was asked whether he would run for president in 2008, and he of course said that he hadn't made any decision. He spoke evidently sincere words of praise for other possible candidates: Bill Frist, George Allen, Rudolph Giuliani. But if his demeanor Wednesday night was a fair indication, he's running. Polls currently show him and Giuliani leading among Republican primary voters. His comments on spending and immigration were in line with the animating spirit of Republican primary electorates, even if some of the measures he continues to support (McCain-Kennedy, the McCain-Lieberman bill on global warming, campaign-finance regulation) are not.