Just two weeks after being feted by President Obama for bipartisanship, Sen. John McCain on Tuesday went head-to-head with Mr. Obama for the first time since the election, mobilizing his own campaign supporters to oppose the president’s giant economic recovery spending bill.
In taking the strong stand — he accused Democrats of “trying to jam” the $885 billion bill through the Senate — the former Republican presidential candidate signaled that he wants to recapture the role he used to serve as chief foe of pork-barrel spending. The e-mail marks an early test of Mr. McCain’s political capital after suffering an electoral defeat at the hands of Mr. Obama in November.
“I cannot and do not support the package on the table from the Democrats and the Obama Administration. Our country does not need just another spending bill, particularly not one that will load future generations with the burden of massive debt,” Mr. McCain said in the e-mail, though he praised the president for trying to reach out to Republicans.
There’s a hint of one-upsmanship to the move. Mr. McCain distributed his e-mail a day after Mr. Obama sent an e-mail to his campaign supporters urging them to back his plan.
The White House did not respond to a message seeking comment on Mr. McCain’s missive.
The night before the inauguration, Mr. Obama’s transition team hosted a dinner for Mr. McCain at the Washington Hilton — one of three dinners designed to show off Mr. Obama’s bipartisan credentials.
Taking the stage at the dinner, Mr. Obama embraced Mr. McCain and said they shared “responsibility to usher in a new season of cooperation.” Mr. Obama also said Mr. McCain was motivated by “a pure and deeply felt love of this country.”
Presidential historians said there’s no standard time frame for losing candidates to wait to voice opposition but that given the circumstances of the economic crisis and a giant spending bill, Mr. McCain’s efforts are understandable.
“The stakes are extremely high and there’s very different points of view on it,” said William B. “Bill” Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “I would understand Senator McCain doing this because you can’t always just sit back and wait if there are really huge decisions being made.”
He said it might have seemed petty for Mr. McCain to criticize Mr. Obama’s executive orders, but the stimulus bill is such a major issue so early in the administration that it’s a legitimate area on which to take a stand.
“I wouldn’t say it was unprecedented, but there are not many examples of defeated presidential candidates being in a place to lead the opposition,” said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “On the stimulus bill, he has decided to really gear up.”
Unlike Bob Dole, who gave up his Senate seat in the middle of his 1996 run as Republicans’ presidential nominee, Mr. McCain never relinquished his seat.
Neither did Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, who just months after losing to President Bush used his position on the Senate Finance Committee to oppose Mr. Bush’s signature issue of revamping Social Security reform. Mr. Kerry argued that Mr. Bush had won too narrowly to claim a mandate on the issue.
“I think I’ve become an expert on the things President Bush has said or not said. In the course of this campaign, he must have said 100,000 times that he wants to privatize accounts,” Mr. Kerry said at a hearing in early February 2005.
The Democrats’ 2000 nominee, Al Gore, retooled himself after his loss to Mr. Bush, becoming a force in the environmental movement and creating “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film about climate change that earned an Academy Award for best documentary feature.
Mr. McCain sent out his e-mail Tuesday under the auspices of his political action committee, Country First PAC.
The PAC didn’t return a call for comment.
Mr. Obama’s e-mail Monday is certain to have reached millions more supporters. Mr. Obama amassed a list of 13 million e-mail addresses during his presidential campaign, and he urged them to attend house parties this weekend to demonstrate support for the massive spending bill, which the president says will create jobs and stabilize the economy.
Mr. McCain, in a separate statement Tuesday, questioned much of the bill and challenged Mr. Obama to live up to his pledge to fund only projects that demonstrated they would create jobs.
“Someone needs to explain to me how giving tens of millions of dollars to the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Smithsonian museums will reverse the ‘devastating effects of the economic crisis,’ ” the senator said. “It would be comical if this weren’t such a serious issue.”