THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Senator swaying skeptics in House

GOP leaders step to front-runner

Flanking John McCain at a news conference yesterday were, from left, Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boehner of Ohio, Adam Putnam of Florida, and Eric Cantor of Virginia. Flanking John McCain at a news conference yesterday were, from left, Reps. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boehner of Ohio, Adam Putnam of Florida, and Eric Cantor of Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / February 14, 2008

WASHINGTON - John McCain returned to his boyhood home in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood yesterday to win over unfriendly House Republicans, who quickly expressed a desire to make his agenda their own.

"He will be a strong influence on our party going forward," said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republicans' chief deputy whip.

In his first meeting with the House Republican Conference after becoming his party's de facto nominee, McCain was greeted with questions about his positions on immigration and campaign finance reform. Yet Republican House leaders who joined McCain at a news conference afterward - including some who announced their endorsements of the senator from Arizona after previously supporting his opponents - were eager to rally around McCain's priorities.

"All of us know that Senator McCain has had positions that have differed with some in our party, and clearly I've had some disagreements with Senator McCain over the years," said Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader. "But I've got to tell you, I've watched this presidential race unfold, and I've watched John McCain be a strong advocate for the principles I believe in."

Boehner mentioned their common belief in the "sanctity of human life," referring to their opposition to abortion rights, and pointed to the Iraq war as the "one issue that separates Senator McCain from all the others."

Yet Boehner and his colleagues also embraced McCain's efforts to restrict congressional spending practices - which have included holding up Republican-sponsored projects for ridicule. The move suggested that McCain intends to repair the breach with fellow Republicans by bringing the party to him.

"We now all realize this is a way forward," Cantor said in an interview. "Americans believe Washington is broken and we need to fix it."

McCain adviser Mark Salter identified reform of the earmark process and efforts to shrink the size of the federal government as "areas where they're perfectly simpatico" and which House Republicans "can emphasize as much as McCain has."

"It should be their priority irrespective of who their nominee is," Salter said.

The meeting was held at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican social institution that in a previous incarnation served as the McCain family home while the senator's father, a Navy admiral, was based in Washington. Yesterday's public exchange was far from sentimental, however: The party out of legislative power was clearly focused on winning.

"I believe this contest is over, and it's produced the best possible nominee to take back to the House," said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip. McCain would be "a nominee who appeals to Reagan Democrats, who appeals to independents, the nominee who will unite conservatives in a way that ensures he'll be not only the next president, but he'll be working with a Republican majority in the House."

Yet signs of a culture clash between the leadership and the party's new standard-bearer were apparent. When Blunt tried to conclude the news conference, McCain brushed him aside to take another question, the third after a House staff member shouted, "Last question!"

"Can I just do one more?" McCain asked.

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