John McCain’s new (old) niche: Senate dealmaker

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Did John McCain just help save the Senate from a showdown over a dramatic rule change that could have reverberated for years?

Yes, it seems he did. It’s the latest example of the Arizona Republican senator as consensus builder, a far cry from McCain the fire-thrower who was warding off Republican primary challengers in 2008 and 2010.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“John McCain is the reason we’re at the point we are,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday morning as he announced a tentative deal to end an impasse over executive branch nominees, thereby avoiding a precedent-setting showdown over the so-called “nuclear option.”

Reid’s remark jibes with the what the Senate has seen this year from McCain, who joined a bipartisan effort to overhaul immigration laws and has lashed conservative colleagues as “wacko birds.”

At the same time, it’s all a stark contrast from the McCain of 2008-2010, who emerged as one of Obama’s chief critics, and famously declared a need to “complete the danged fence” in an ad about immigration. No senator held a more conservative voting record the McCain in 2010, according to National Journal’s vote ratings.

So why the new tone? Elections. In 2008 McCain was running in a Republican presidential primary. And two years later he was fighting to keep his job in the Senate against former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who ran to the incumbent’s right.

The McCain of 2013 looks more like the McCain who earned a reputation as a “maverick” earlier in his career, as he crafted agreements on immigration with liberal icon Ted Kennedy and campaign finance with lefty favorite Russ Feingold.

In a way, it seems fitting that McCain, the elder statesman who is probably nearing the end of his career, would adopt the role of consensus builder in this Congress, especially considering that for many of his GOP colleagues, compromise isn’t what the doctor ordered. In his ongoing effort to avert a conservative primary challenge in 2014, it’s the last thing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needs. Imagine Reid praising McConnell on the Senate floor as he did McCain. Now imagine how his conservative critics would react.

What about other well-known senators? Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are both potential 2016 presidential candidate whose maneuverings must necessarily be governed (at least in part) by conservative caucus-goers in Iowa and Republican primary voters in South Carolina.

Sure, Rubio was a major player on immigration. But he might soon wade deeper into the debate over abortion laws with a position that is hardly a crowd-pleaser across the aisle. And Paul has stood out for his posture on civil liberties and foreign policy popular on the right these days.

McCain wasn’t working alone in his effort to avert the nuclear option. McConnell praised the efforts of GOP Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.), Rob Portman (Ohio), and Bob Corker (Tenn.) in remarks Tuesday afternoon.

So, McCain isn’t a lone ranger. But he is a leading voice. And his political arc makes his work in the current Congress all the more fascinating.