The late Sen. John McCain is remembered for his decades-long tenure serving as a maverick Republican in the Senate, but former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle recalled to CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash how the Arizona senator nearly went so far as to leave the party and caucus with Democrats.
McCain, who died Saturday at 81, began negotiations to break from the GOP following his failed 2000 presidential run amid efforts by both Republicans and Democrats to gain the majority in an evenly split, 50/50 Senate.
“It was after the election. Of course, we went through a very tumultuous period when we weren’t sure just how this is all going to sort out. And if you recall, we were – it was the first 50/50 Senate. And so, we were trying to figure out how you govern with a 50/50 Senate,” Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who became Senate majority leader in 2001, said in September 2017.
In 2001, The Washington Post detailed the rifts between McCain’s camp and George W. Bush’s team. McCain thought Bush authorized political attacks against his Vietnam War credentials and social values, including a malicious rumor about his adopted daughter. McCain’s team also thought they were being prevented from getting jobs in the Bush administration.
“I think he was upset because I think he thought the primary process was very, in some ways even painful, very frustrating, didn’t think he was dealt with fairly. It started with that, but I think there were also some personality issues within the caucus itself,” Daschle said.
“And almost immediately, there were overtures on both sides. [Republican Sen.] Trent Lott was reaching out … to Democrats, and I was reaching out to Republicans. And we had picked up that there was a lot of frustration that John was feeling,” he added.
Daschle said conversations about leaving the party happened in plain sight, and that McCain left the option open to caucus with Democrats. The negotiations got as far as discussing committee roles and assignments.
“We primarily talked on the floor. The office would have been too transparent,” he said.
The former Democratic senator emphasized that if McCain would have left the Republican Party, he would not adopt Democratic policy positions, saying that he didn’t think McCain “was going to renounce his philosophy, his party, as much as he was going to be an independent caucusing with the Democrats if that could be arranged.”
However, the effort to pull McCain away from the GOP halted when then-Republican Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords pivoted to caucus with the Democrats in May 2001, giving Democrats more influence in the Senate.
Daschle said that amid a media frenzy over rumors that McCain would still jump ship, McCain invited him to a long weekend visit to his Arizona home – even though the two knew the effort to make him an Independent had come to a stop. Daschle took him up on the offer that June.
“It was really one of the most enjoyable weekends I think I had as leader,” Daschle said.