CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An odd couple of Republican senators have hit the road, arguing for a go-slow approach to President Barack Obama's push to revamp health care.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain are headlining the GOP's answer to the raucous town hall meetings of August in which congressional Democrats had to shout over angry constituents about health care, growing deficits and the increasing role of the federal government.
Not known for working closely or particularly liking each other – the two waged a fierce fight for years over campaign finance – McConnell and McCain nonetheless have been united at three events in two days in which they've urged a more modest approach on Obama's top domestic priority.
In North Carolina on Tuesday, they interacted with something close to deference, unity and self-deprecation.
McConnell introduced McCain as the "famous GOP senator."
McCain answered, "You mean our most famous loser."
Hardly an upbeat outlook, but on health care they have reasons to work together and try to frame Republican opposition to a comprehensive health care overhaul in thoughtful and credible terms.
Start with the GOP's drive to recover in next year's midterm elections after the drubbing Republicans took from Obama and the Democrats in 2008. To do that, they must bring the Democrats down a notch from an effective hold on 60 Senate votes, potentially enough to kill GOP filibusters and control policy.
Political recovery is an issue for McCain, too.
The decorated war veteran and recognized expert on national security and campaign finance reform has largely deferred to other Republicans on health care although the Arizona lawmaker is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But in recent weeks, McCain has been outspoken on health care overhaul and its pricetag of $1 trillion-plus over 10 years and basing his argument on his reputation as a deficit hawk.
Health care also offers McCain a chance to revise his image with millions of Americans and fill the elder statesman role embodied by his friend and former colleague, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Together, McConnell and McCain – joined by other Republican senators – held campaign-style events at tightly controlled events in Missouri, North Carolina and Florida on Monday and Tuesday with Congress set to return next week. Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida hosted the discussions. The National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for travel-related expenses.
On Monday, at a Kansas City, Mo., hospital, McCain and McConnell appeared before a group of about 100 health care professionals – half invited by the retiring Republican senator and half by the hospital.
"We wanted to hear about it with people who are on the front lines," said Bond. "They are all concerned about who is going to pay for this grandiose expansion" of government services.
In Charlotte on Tuesday, McCain cited his credentials as a deficit hawk and faulted Obama for not offering his own health care plan – echoing a complaint from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
"The president has not come forward with a proposal," McCain said, sounding like he was still on the campaign trail. "He's supposed to lead. Where is his proposal?"
Democratic leaders have said that health care must be revamped to make it more affordable and accessible.
McConnell called for Congress "to step back, start over and think about incremental changes" to the health care system and warned against Democrats using procedural maneuvers to ram through their version without Republican support.
That, McConnell said, "will make it even hard to sell to the Americans people."
The Republican road show reached Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah, Fla., northwest of Miami, where an invitation-only crowd – many of them doctors and hospital administrators – greeted the senators with a standing ovation.
Joined by Martinez, the senators cautioned against an overhaul so sweeping it would affect one-sixth of the economy.
Many of those who addressed the senators had little in the way of questions. Some used the event to tell McCain they voted for him in the presidential election.
"Everybody's saying, 'I voted for you.' I'm going to demand a recount," McCain joked.
Kellman reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Matt Sedensky in Hialeah, Fla., contributed to this report.