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McCain's Legislative Years


And I'm joined now by NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thanks so much for being here.


MARTIN: Now, we just heard from two people who worked with John McCain in the Senate. But there's more to say about his legacy. So round out the picture for us, if you would.

SNELL: Yeah. I think one of the main things that really was a turning point for McCain was in early on his career in the Senate, just three years after he was there, he had what he called the asterisks, and that's the Keating Five. He was 1 of 5 senators who were caught up in the broader savings and loan scandal of the time, and he was accused of essentially corruption and of having done favors for a political donor, somebody who had been - helped him out tremendously during his career in Congress. And he would - you know, it was a developer who was being bailed out in this process, and he wanted assistance from McCain and Keating asked him to fly to San Francisco to talk to regulators. Originally, McCain refused. And in the end, he was basically told that it was a small issue. He was lightly reprimanded compared to the other four. But it really changed the way he thought about his career as a legislator and his relationship with donors. And he spent the next 10 years - 12 years of his career really focused on fixing those issues, righting the wrongs that he saw in the system.

MARTIN: So the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was a part of that, right? So tell us about it.

SNELL: Right. He really has focused on bipartisanship as the entirety of his career. That's one thing we hear over and over and over again is that when there was a problem to be fixed, Senator McCain was the first person to go find a Democrat who he thought he could cut a deal with. And in this case, it was Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. And the two of them set out to rewrite the way that donors work with campaigns and what needs to be disclosed. And he did this much to the objection of now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who very much opposed this idea of changing the rules. And McCain had that happen over and over in his career where he would reach a point where he was under serious stress or he was - had done something that he didn't feel lived up to his own personal morals or standards, and then he set out to correct it for the rest of the time until he achieved what he needed to achieve to correct it.

MARTIN: So to that end, you know, we've talked a lot about John McCain as a maverick who bucked his party, as a championship of bipartisan outreach. But beside McCain-Feingold, what is his legislative legacy after more than 30 years in the Senate? I mean, the immigration bill that Senator Schumer mentioned a few minutes ago failed.

SNELL: It did fail, but it is still the standard by which most of Congress thinks about the way to rewrite immigration laws. It is still the thing that people remember as the ultimate goal, of working together in a way that it is that bipartisan and that - they would love to revisit that. Another big part of his legacy is his representation of the Pentagon and making sure that every single year, the National Defense Authorization bill gets passed. Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but there were years when he personally dragged that from a ensnared fight about spending to a bipartisan bill that was every single year passed out of Congress and signed into law. That is no small feat. And it's part of his overall, you know, dedication to the military and to making sure that the troops that he sees as family, the people who he believes shaped him as a presidential candidate and as a public figure, were taken care of and were well-served by Congress. And that was a very, very personal thing for him.

MARTIN: That is NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you so much.

SNELL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.