03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Emerges As Front Man In GOP Efforts To Claim Reform Mantle

The way Democrats secured the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster of health care legislation has exposed them to accusations that they have abandoned the "reformist" platform that swept them into office.

No cameras were allowed in the room where the final bill was written. And legislative sweeteners were added to the product to win the support of wavering members.

Senate Republicans, hell-bent on extracting every piece of political flesh they can in the current debate, quickly seized the initiative. And when they did, they turned to a familiar, self-proclaimed reformer to wield their message.

In a withering address on the Senate floor on Sunday, Sen. John McCain accused the president and Democratic leadership in the Senate of abandoning pledges of accountability and transparency during the reform process.

Pointing to the deals cut with the pharmaceutical industry, the American Medical Association and others, the Arizona Republican insisted that Democrats had "set up a tent out front and put Persian rugs out in front of it" - greeting special interests with specific gifts.

Recalling President Obama's campaign pledge to televise negotiations, McCain noted that "there has never been a C-SPAN camera" in the rooms where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) crafted the final version of legislation. Drawing attention to some of the sweeteners that were put in the bill to win the support of conservative Democrats, McCain scoffed that there were now "new words in our lexicon," including the "Cornhusker Kickback", in reference to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and the newly recoined term "The Louisiana Purchase" in reference to concessions to that state's Sen. Mary Landrieu.

McCain's new high-mindedness didn't impress New York Time's columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote on Thursday that while McCain "used to be such a constructive independent that some of his Republican Senate colleagues called him a traitor. Now he's such a predictable obstructionist that he's in the just-say-no vanguard with the same conservatives who used to despise him." She concludes: "With President Obama, McCain's objections seem motivated more by vendetta than principle."

McCain has indeed proven to be less than a willing negotiator since returning from the campaign trail to the Senate. But his Tuesday rant wasn't just another reflexive broadside. Republican Party strategists say the GOP senses a serious opportunity to portray itself as the party of transparency and reform. They know from their own history that the legislative process is inherently messy, requiring the type of back-room dealing that was recently witnessed. That makes those in power susceptible to claims of corruption - and particularly so when they vowed to hold themselves to higher standards.

Health care legislation may be impossible to stop. But the GOP plans to gain from its fallout.

"I think the difference here is that Obama and the Democrats promised things were going to be different and obviously it is not different," Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist told the Huffington Post. "Obama set the bar very high and he will be measured by his own words and I think to a certain extent when David Axelrod and Harry Reid are saying that this is the way it has always been done, after they ran a campaign saying they wanted to change the way things were normally done, that will really hurt them."

"A cornerstone of Barack Obama's appeal to the American people was the promise that he was something totally different," said Alex Conant, another GOP strategist. "But the way his health care legislation came together was Washington politics as usual. When you consider the backroom deals made to pass this bill, coupled with all the earlier broken promises like bringing lobbyists into the Administration, a pattern emerges."

"What really strikes me about the health care debate is how it's been handled. We've been told that hearings will appear on C-SPAN. They haven't." said Larry Farnsworth, an aide for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "But as a former Republican leadership aide, what I find most appalling is that they've turned to and cut a deal with Billy Tauzin on behalf of PHARMA. If you remember, six years ago when we passed the prescription drug bill, it was called a boondoggle on the floor of the House by Nancy Pelosi... Now, suddenly, they're working with the same person."

"This provides Republicans an opportunity for the contrast that eluded us in 2008 and 2006. One of the most troubling discoveries in the polling data from 2008 was just how far removed we were from being the party voters associated with the reform mantle," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney's campaign. "The health care reform bill and its process are vehicles for the way voters view Washington: partisan, chaotic, unmanageable, wasteful."

Such criticisms call for some context. Republicans, while in power, held no negotiations where C-SPAN could see them. And the gift to Big Pharma that was Medicare Part D will likely still dwarf the benefits the industry will get from the current legislation.

As Craig Shirley, another longtime GOP consultant, noted: "There is an opportunity for Republicans here, but the problem is they are just as beholden to corporate America including the pharmaceuticals and the insurance companies as are the Democrats. Ideology and principles are not factors here. This is simply about raw, naked, unethical power."

Moreover, while Obama has not followed through on some of his pledges regarding transparency, he has on others, and has overall brought some additional sunlight to the legislative process. Indeed, while McCain and others argue that the president abandoned his pledge for transparency, others insist that it is precisely because the legislative process has been so open that Democrats have endured charges of being bought and sold.

"President Obama campaigned on transparency and accountability," said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University. "Now, what we have seen is the transparency because Obama allowed Congress to detail the legislation. But, when you detail the legislation you also see the deals made either for Nebraska or Louisiana and these other states. So you can argue that the transparency has hurt the administration in claiming the reformer mantle."

WATCH McCain's floor speech:

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