- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

The White House found an unlikely ally in winning a House vote on airline security Sen. John McCain, whose jests about cowardice in the House just may have turned lawmakers against his rival bill.

"There's a lot of members who heard John McCain and said 'I'm going to vote against John McCain,'" said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. "John McCain would like this House to go away."

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, sponsored an airline security bill that passed the Senate 100-0. It calls for all baggage screeners and other security personnel at airports to become federal employees.

But the House on Thursday night approved a different version, supported by the White House, that gives the president flexibility to use either federal employees or private contractors at various airports around the nation. That bill was approved 286-139 after the House narrowly defeated Mr. McCain's version, 218-214.

Mr. McCain, who has been at odds with the White House over several bills this year, angered some House members by joking on "The Late Show With David Letterman" about House leaders' decision to close the chamber after the Oct. 15 anthrax attack at the Capitol.

Mr. McCain ridiculed House members as "real profiles in courage" and said the House had "head[ed] for the hills" although the Senate remained open.

Those remarks prompted Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, to refer to the Senate in general and Mr. McCain in particular as "pompous windbags."

Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho Republican, told the Hill newspaper of Mr. McCain, "It'll be a cold day in hell before I vote for anything he's sponsoring. He has lost any credibility in the House that he ever had."

When Mr. McCain's name was brought up at a closed meeting of House Republicans this week, lawmakers booed.

No House members would admit to voting against Mr. McCain's bill solely because of his comments, but his remarks certainly did not appear to help his cause.

"He went out there and beat his chest on David Letterman," Mr. Feehery said.

A McCain spokeswoman said she knew of no backlash in the House and added, "That's pretty sad, if that's the case."

"I find it very hard to believe that any member of Congress would vote on airline security, which is also national security, based on a quip on a late-night talk show," said McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives.

The airline security legislation now goes to a House-Senate conference committee. Mr. McCain has said he expects Senate conferees to fight hard for the Senate provisions because of the chamber's unanimous vote.

The episode is just the latest chapter in the on-again, off-again relationship between Mr. McCain and House Republicans. He campaigned for dozens of House Republican candidates last year on the popularity of his presidential bid and his effort to revise campaign finance laws.

But he turned off some House Republicans earlier this year with what some viewed as a heavy-handed reminder to vote for his campaign finance bill because he had stumped for them. That measure has stalled in the House.

Mr. McCain lashed out Thursday at Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, when he learned that Mr. Davis had switched his support from Mr. McCain's airline bill to the measure backed by the White House.

"One of the premises of this bill is that they don't want federal employees to be carrying out this very important security function," Mr. McCain said. "I hope that Congressman Tom Davis, who represents thousands and thousands of federal employees, would recognize at least that many of his constituents believe that federal employees can do a pretty good job as they do in other sectors of government service and I would also remind you that those who died at the World Trade Center policemen and firemen were guess what union members."

His colleagues say Mr. McCain delights in the public attention that his comments have aroused. And nobody expects the loquacious, wisecracking senator to abandon his fondness for the media spotlight.

As Mr. McCain and Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, were getting on an elevator at the Capitol this week, they were discussing that there would be a 10-minute break between upcoming votes on the Senate floor.

"Ten minutes," Mr. Thompson remarked to his friend. "That's enough time for you to hold two press conferences."

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