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CAMPAIGN 2000

Trailing Media and Tourists, McCain Returns to Senate

Capitol Hill: Arizona lawmaker marks official return from presidential bid with floor speech. He gets standing ovation from colleagues at luncheon.

March 22, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — John McCain returned to the Senate floor Tuesday to give his first post-campaign speech, and his colleagues treated him like any other senator: No one showed up to listen.

But everywhere else, the Arizona senator, whose presidential campaign transformed him into a national political figure, was treated like a rock star.

The corridor outside his congressional office was thick with curious tourists, adoring aides and reporters. Inside the office, television camera crews jockeyed for position as McCain's tiny band of Senate supporters--"The Four Horsemen," they call themselves--arrived for a morning meeting.

"Oh my goodness!" exclaimed Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), squinting into the glare of TV lights. "What if we'd won!"

Almost two weeks since he conceded the Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, McCain has returned to make the tough transition from national celebrity to workaday life on Capitol Hill.

How did it feel to be back?

"Terrible! Depressing!" he joked to reporters.

With his return to Washington, McCain and his supporters are struggling to figure out what to do with his new national following. He has promised to campaign for House and Senate GOP candidates to help keep Congress in Republican hands. He has decided to set up a political action committee to advance his reform agenda.

But all that seems a tad dull compared to the frisson of the campaign trail, the 24/7 media exposure, the clubby camaraderie of his famed campaign bus.

"I'd much rather be on the Straight Talk Express," McCain acknowledged with a grin.

Although he had already spent a quiet day in his Senate office the day before, McCain staged his formal reentry to Senate life Tuesday with a schedule packed with media events, GOP bonding and policy pronouncements.

First on his agenda was a meeting with the quartet of senators who supported his presidential bid--a group whose size reflects McCain's standing among his Republican colleagues. Most were rubbed the wrong way by his fervid push for campaign finance reform and his fiery personality. His presidential bid only increased the tensions because his rambunctious anti-establishment campaign was, in part, an attack on Congress.

McCain put out word to the media that he would be making his first speech on the Senate floor around 11:30 a.m. But typical McCain: He did not tell his colleagues.

He said he wanted to reemerge without fanfare, his first remarks to be like any other Senate speech (usually given to an empty chamber). So when McCain strode onto the Senate floor the only person there was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was talking about gun control. She interrupted her speech to welcome McCain back--then left him alone in the chamber.

Although McCain, in his concession speech to Bush, had promised to carry his reform agenda from the campaign trail back into the Senate, his speech had a different focus: the continuing crisis in Kosovo. But he did close with some words about his cause celebre.

"I intend to do what I can, working with my congressional colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, to help bring about the changes to the practices and institutions of our democracy that they want and deserve," he said.

McCain's real welcome-back reception came at the Senate GOP's weekly lunch. His anticipated arrival created such a hubbub that the Capitol Police struggled to keep the crowds in cordoned-off areas so senators could get through the halls.

Behind closed doors, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) welcomed McCain back to the club, and his colleagues rose for a standing ovation, senators at the meeting said. McCain responded gratefully--and with an offer to give anyone who wanted it a guided tour of New Hampshire.

McCain later returned to the Senate floor to join debate on an issue he long has championed: A bill to allow Social Security recipients to work for pay without losing benefits.

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Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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