WASHINGTON – Sitting next to each other at a press breakfast Thursday, Sens. John McCain and Charles E. Schumer seemed like anything but the partisan rivals they’ve been for years.
Instead, the 2008 Republican nominee for president and the perennial thorn in the side of Republicans everywhere seemed, well, like new best friends forever.
“I’d like to thank Chuck Schumer for the leadership he has displayed” in helping hammer out a bipartisan immigration bill with a “Gang of Eight” senators from both parties, said McCain, R-Ariz., “We’ve worked on other issues together, and I appreciate the opportunity to be associated with him, since the American people are very interested in seeing some result from the Congress of the United States.”
Schumer, D-N.Y, was equally lavish in praising McCain, saying: “I want to salute John, who has done just an amazing job of leadership. It [the immigration bill] wouldn’t have happened without him.”
And so began an hour of easy banter and heartfelt agreement between two men who, in the past, haven’t agreed on much of anything.
In recent months, though, McCain and Schumer built the kind of across-the-aisle relationship that’s become increasingly rare in the nation’s capital.
It is a relationship honed through hours of negotiation on the complex immigration bill and solidified during an early-spring trip to the border areas of McCain’s home state. Both senators now talk about their deal, and their relationship, as a template for how Washington ought to work.
But the friendship between the two men – two of the most powerful and media-savvy members of the Senate – took a long time to get started.
For years, Schumer conceded, they didn’t have much of a relationship. In fact, they found themselves pushing in opposite directions.
McCain was building a national political brand as a maverick conservative and waging presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008.
Meanwhile, Schumer fashioned a middle-class Democratic message that served him well in the four years that he spent as the head of the party’s Senate campaign committee, a time the party regained control of the Senate.
What’s more, the two sometimes-witty, sometimes-prickly senators didn’t seem to get each other.
In 2011, for example, McCain took to the Senate floor to discuss military detention practices and a Supreme Court case on the issue stemming from Long Island.
“Last I checked, Long Island was part – albeit sometimes regrettably – part of the United States of America,” McCain joked.
That prompted Schumer to take to Twitter to say: “All of America saw how heroic Long Islanders were on 9/11. #LongIsland deserves an apology.”
McCain then went back to the Senate floor to apologize, sort of.
“I’m sorry there’s at least one of my colleagues that can’t take a joke, and so I apologize if I offended him and hope that someday he will have a sense of humor,” the Arizona Republican said.
But that wasn’t good enough for Schumer.
“NYers can take a joke,” he tweeted in reply. “But if @SenJohnMcCain wants to mock parts of America, stick to Arizona.”
That little spat seems to be forgotten now that the two men started really talking.
To hear Schumer tell it, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., approached both men a few months ago and said they ought to start working together on the immigration issue, a longtime passion of McCain, who saw his last attempt at compromise go up in flames in 2007.
At about the same time, McCain was trying to fight off an attempt by younger Democratic senators to eliminate the filibuster rules that essentially require that 60 of the 100 senators support any important measure to get it passed.
And Schumer, knowing that it was politically impossible to eliminate the filibuster, helped broker a compromise that aims to speed Senate action without abandoning that 60-vote threshold.
Praising Schumer for his help on the issue on “Face the Nation,” McCain said: “I thought we really achieved something.”
Working together with their newfound trust, McCain and Schumer started meeting frequently to talk immigration early this year.
Earlier this spring, they traveled together to the Arizona border, so that Schumer could learn about how difficult it is to patrol the vast, desolate southern border.
“It was actually Passover, and he [McCain] brought me chocolate-covered matzos,” recalled Schumer, who later subbed for an ill McCain to defend the evolving immigration bill before Latino groups in Arizona.
Back in Washington, McCain and Schumer – two of the “Gang of Eight,” the bipartisan group of Senate leaders on the immigration issue – helped forge a bill that has a little something for every side in the debate while asking every side to give a little, too.
Most notably, Democrats agreed to the toughest border security regimen and the first requirement that immigrants learn English.
And Republicans agreed to an arduous 13½-year path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens.
McCain sounds deeply proud of the effort and its results.
“You had eight people of different viewpoints, of different states, of different needs, if you will, all trying to reach common ground to come together in the middle,” he said at the press breakfast, which was sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “It was an amazing thing to me, and it gives you a lot of faith” – both in the bill and the process that put it together, McCain said.
Schumer agreed. “There’s a different mood in the Senate,” he said. “I hope that our immigration bill sets the model for coming bipartisan agreements.”
Schumer said the two men now talk via cellphone three or four times a day and are discussing working together on other issues, such as the federal budget.
Thursday’s joint appearance was only the latest for McCain and Schumer, who traveled as a tag team to the White House to brief President Obama on the immigration bill and appeared side-by-side on “Face the Nation” to explain it.
Bob Schieffer, the “Face the Nation” host who has decades of experience covering Congress and politics, was impressed.
“This reminds me of how Washington used to be when I first came to Washington,” Schieffer said at the end of the senators’ appearance. “I’m sure it will never be the same, and I’m sure it looks better in the rearview mirror than it really was, but it was really nice to see two senior members of the Senate sitting at the same table having a discussion like we just had. I think you may want to take this on the road.”
“We will,” McCain replied.
Part of that road show was Thursday’s breakfast, where McCain praised Schumer for “getting together different views, even within the group, and different priorities,” and helping to forge them into a compromise.
Such bipartisan cooperation is essential, McCain said, if Congress is ever to pass significant legislation and repair its shaky standing with the American people.
“I’m sure you saw the poll other day about the favorabilities of different aspects of our lives – and members of Congress ranked just below a colonoscopy,” McCain said. “We’d like to get above a colonoscopy.”