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Slate's Politics: McCain, Obama Clash on Reform

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The United States Senate is called the world's greatest deliberative body, an institution that runs on a deep sense of collegiality. But look at this exchange of letters this week between two Senators with national reputations and ambitions. They are John McCain, Arizona Republican and Presidential candidate in the past, perhaps again. And Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois.

The topic is lobbying reform and in blunt, sarcastic language Senator McCain questioned Senator Obama's concern. I'm joined from Washington by Slate's political correspondent, John Dickerson. John, the background story here. What are these guys arguing about?

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Correspondent, Slate.com): Well, they're arguing about a Senate effort to do something about lobbying in the wake of the Abramoff scandal and, well, in the wake of basically the way business is done in Washington. Everybody wants a piece of coming up with the solution and yet, of course, both parties want to score political points. And Obama and McCain were briefly enjoined in the task together, and now they're going after each other.

CHADWICK: There was some kind of meeting where Senator McCain and Senator Obama, according to Senator McCain, exchanged some kind of agreement to work outside the committee system, try and get a deal going between the two of them. And then Senator McCain writes this letter to Senator Obama with this language: I'd like to apologize to you for assuming your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate were sincere. I concluded your professed concern for the institution and public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions.

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, this is actually kind of refreshing in Washington, where it's all, you know, everything's got so much cotton candy around it that you rarely find out what people really mean here. What happened with Senator McCain is he and Senator Obama were in this meeting. McCain has joined with, in a bipartisan effort, with Senator Lieberman, Senator Nelson, both Democrats, to both work with the committees but also have a kind of working group outside of them as well. And Obama came to that meeting and then he sent Senator McCain a letter saying, Well, I think that the basis of an agreement here should be a bill put forward by Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid. And so McCain's view was, Well, Obama came to this meeting in which we talked about working with the committees, but also in which we all decided we'd kind of join hands. This for the Democratic Party is a potential victory blow in taking back the House or Senate or both.

And so it's highly politically charged. And for the Republicans, of course, it's a dagger pointed at their continuing majority. So that the atmosphere is highly charged. And McCain felt that Obama came to the meeting and then sent him this public letter as an act of pure partisanship, which they just held a meeting to decide not to engage in.

CHADWICK: Well, there is maybe a sense or in fact Senator McCain I guess is really flat out saying this, that the Democrats have decided, let's not solve this problem before November because we're going to use this problem as a Democratic political tool. That's what Senator McCain is saying, and in very sharp language.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. He's essentially accusing Obama of faking him out, and after making it seem like he wanted to come up with a bipartisan solution, then kind of sucker-punched him with sending this letter. Now McCain, of course, is sort of punching back, obviously very hard and making personal challenges about Obama. And so yes, they basically both decided that this is now going to be a political issue to be battled out with the letters.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, Slate's political correspondent from Washington. John, thank you.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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