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McCain and Obama promise 'new era of reform'

President-elect Barack Obama and his former rival John McCain pledged yesterday to launch "a new era of reform" after a dramatic meeting in Chicago appeared to dispel much of the election campaign's bitterness.

There was a mood of conciliation as the rivals pledged to put aside differences in order to rid Washington of its "bad habits" and solve the "urgent challenges of our time".

The joint statement, unprecedented in recent White House history, saw both politicians undertake "to work together in the days and months ahead on challenges like solving our financial crisis, creating a new energy economy, and protecting our nation's security."

The aim, they said, was to "restore trust in government, and bring back prosperity and opportunity for every hardworking American family."

Senator McCain had already shown himself to be magnanimous in defeat. On the night he lost the election he declared: "I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."

Yesterday's statement reflected some of his pet themes, including taking on "government waste and bitter partisanship in Washington", and bringing back "prosperity and opportunity for every hard-working American family". Yesterday's meeting provided a first opportunity for the two politicians to map out their future co-operation. On the way in Mr Obama said they were "just going to have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country. And also to offer thanks to Senator McCain for the outstanding service he's already rendered."

Asked whether he planned to help the Obama administration, McCain replied: "Obviously." Campaign claims that Mr Obama was a celebrity groupie and fellow-traveller with terrorists were forgotten, along with attacks on the "erratic" Mr McCain.

On the face of it the prospects for co-operation are good. Both men share a deep frustration at the partisan gridlock in Washington that has stalled reforms on major issues for decades. In addition, Mr Obama's reform agenda is so sweeping it will require Republican co-operation.

Mr McCain has never been at ease as a standard-bearer for conservative Republicans and he may prove a crucial ally of Mr Obama in the Senate. Mr Obama wants to hit the ground running in January. He has ambitious plans to reform the US energy economy, tackle climate change and extend health care insurance to tens of millions more Americans. He takes over in the midst of deepening economic woes and will need Republican help to pass financial-stimulus legislation.

Mr Obama has also said he intends to appoint Republican cabinet members, but aides discounted the possibility that he would either invite Mr McCain or that such an offer would be accepted. If there is a quid pro quo for co-operation, high on Mr McCain's list would be his hobby horses of immigration reform, which was blocked by his own party last year, and changing the social security system, which is heading for bankruptcy. In his concession speech Mr McCain briefly mentioned the hot-poker subject of immigration.

On the campaign trail Mr Obama and Mr McCain clashed over the Democrat's plans to stop the war in Iraq, as well as plans for higher taxes and spending. But they share common ground on a variety of issues, notably the need for urgent action on climate change. Both are committed to reversing US dependence on foreign oil.

Yesterday's was still a high stakes meeting, with plenty of potential for misunderstanding. The personal chemistry between the two has never been good. The one time they collaborated in the Senate over ethics reform, it ended bitterly. There are dangers from Mr McCain's party too and he is already being attacked as an apostate by the conservative base.

"There's a lot of blame to go around," said Jim DeMint, a Republican senator. "But I have to mention George Bush and Ted Stevens, and even John McCain," whose faults he listed as in the areas of election finance reform, immigration and combating global warming.

McCain and Obama A history of bad blood

The only time Barack Obama and John McCain tried to work together – on an ethics and lobbying bill – it all ended in tears. In a letter dripping with sarcasm, the Republican wrote to Mr Obama: "I would like to apologise to you for assuming your private assurances to me regarding your desire to co-operate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere."

After an initial pledge to work side-by- side, Mr Obama, then a freshman Senator, had written to let Mr McCain know that he and fellow Democrats felt it would be more effective to move the bill through Congress rather than set up the task force Mr McCain preferred. The Republican interpreted it as a sly bid for partisan advantage.

"I'm embarrassed to admit that, after all these years in politics, I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble," Mr McCain wrote. "Sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won't make the same mistake again."

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