Very rare is the senator with the singular sway to play the scold, the savior, the spoiler, the sacrificial offering and the spurned playmaker for his own party — and all within a spurt of fewer than 60 hours. But that was how this week played out for John McCain.
He may have had other, similar stretches during his three decades working to hold the title of the Senate’s main maverick. But for the indefinite future, he’s not going to have another one nearly as baroque, with so many highs and lows in so short a stretch that delighted, confounded, openly infuriated but secretively satisfied fellow Republicans.
On Friday, his time in his favored place as the center of senatorial attention reached a career peak, and then it shuddered to an anticlimactic end. And so McCain, who turns 81 in a month, is heading back home to Arizona to begin treatment for the aggressive brain cancer discovered two weeks ago.
He decided to leave the Capitol for the summer, days ahead of the rest of the Senate, after being denied what he wanted most before any chemotherapy or radiation go started: Passage of the annual defense authorization legislation under his stewardship as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Although McCain vowed that he’d feel well enough to be back in September, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided not to insist on debating the defense measure when it was certain McCain could participate.
Of course, the GOP boss was suddenly without any motive to do his longtime frenemy a favor, after his stunning and decisive vote against the health care bill. Neither was McConnell at all interested in dividing his GOP rank and file over a highly charged topic for the second time in as many weeks, this time whether Congress should be compelled to vote anew on reauthorizing military force against terrorism.
For his part, McCain was outwardly stoic, labeling the defense bill delay “unfortunate” and taking to Twitter to “urge my colleagues to trust each other, stop political games& put health needs of American ppl 1st. We can do this.”
I urge my colleagues to trust each other, stop political games& put health needs of American ppl 1st. We can do this https://t.co/3gKeGcHNQH— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) July 28, 2017
The McCain Show
That post was part of a series of things McCain had said and done in an effort to align his multifaceted and frenetic behavior with his rhetoric on Tuesday.
After flying across the country only 11 days after the brain surgery in which a cancerous tumor was identified, and belatedly hustling into a Senate chamber where all 99 colleagues were waiting for him, McCain acted the part of partisan hero: He cast an essential vote to allow the Senate to begin debating not-at-all-finalized GOP formulas for altering the 2010 health care law.
But then he delivered an impassioned 15-minute lecture that did more than upbraid all his colleagues for spurning the regular order and bipartisan compromise that have been the Senate’s historically defining characteristics. While palpably rattling McConnell and the rest of his fellow Republicans, his message also seemed to contradict the very decision he’d made minutes before to acquiesce in their rough tactics with his procedural “aye” vote. But, in hindsight and because of his own subsequent vote, it proved precisely prescient.
“We’ve tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them it’s better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t,” he said. “Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act. If this process ends in failure — which seems likely — then let’s return to regular order.”
The disconnect between his jeremiad and his actions continued that night, when McCain sided with most other Republicans in voting, unsuccessfully, to replace the 2010 law with a McConnell bill that, while amounting to the most comprehensive plan any GOP member of Congress has offered, had spent a minimal amount of time in the sunshine.
But after that, an alignment steadily emerged between McCain’s scowling disapproval of the process and his method of operating within its convoluted confines.
He appears to have spent almost as much time in candid talks with Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and other Democrats as with fellow Republicans: There was a series of conversations in person and by phone with McConnell; furtive meetings with other holdouts in the Senate GOP ranks including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and McCain’s best remaining buddy on the Hill, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; a hastily arranged closed-door meeting with Speaker Paul D. Ryan in search of assurances the House would not embrace what the last-ditch, “skinny” repeal bill McConnell had settled on; an intense set-to with Vice President Mike Pence on the floor of the Senate after midnight; and a remarkably brief last-second talk on the phone with President Donald Trump.
His talks with Schumer were “about the Senate, about it working again, about working together and about how this bill was so poor for the American people,” the minority leader said afterward. “And he knew that. So did half of his colleagues, but he had the courage to vote ‘no.’”
McCain apparently made up his mind to vote “no” by late afternoon, and well before he entered the Senate chamber after instructing reporters it was time to “watch the show.”
A fatal blow?
Of course, McCain has defied lopsided majorities of his party and banded with Democrats many times before, on topics ranging from climate change to the torture of military prisoners, campaign finance to immigration, tax cuts to ideological balance on the federal bench.
But it will be hard top his arm-outstretched, thumbs-down gesture at 1:25 a.m. Friday, shocking the Senate chamber by providing the decisive third GOP vote (and the 51st overall) that struck a probably fatal blow against his own party’s seven year quest to “repeal and replace” the 2010 health care law — the signature legislative achievement of Barack Obama, who, of course, got to be president only because he defeated McCain himself.
In fact, the measure at hand was little more than a modest revisiting and reduction of the law known as Obamacare. Unable to find a middle ground between GOP centrists and the conservatives, McConnell designed his skinny repeal to be little more than a vehicle to spur a climactic round of negotiations with the House, which passed a more expansive proposal in May.
The rejected measure’s main provisions would have ended requirements that most people have health coverage and that large businesses offer coverage, the individual and employee mandates in the 2010 statute that Republicans loathe most of all. The bill would have delayed a tax on medical devices, halted federal funding for Planned Parenthood, boosted grants to community health centers and increased the tax advantages of health savings accounts. The result, in the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office, would have been 16 million more people in the ranks of the uninsured next year and premiums rising almost 20 percent for people buying their own insurance.
McCain pointed to the process, the substance and those dire consequences as reasons for one of the most famous votes of his career. On paper, 49 Republican senators came down on the opposite side after considering the same facts. But given that as many as a dozen of them gave public voice to their misgivings along the way, it’s fair to speculate that a bloc of McCain’s colleagues were thanking him under their breath on Friday.
Some senators, GOP moderates or those expecting their next re-election races to be tough, are presumably content the health care debate is at an impasse and they have been saved from the potential political fallout of voting to advance language toward enactment that ends up being viewed as draconian by a pivotal group of voters.
Others, mainly from the confrontational conservative camp, are probably just as content that Congress was not pushed further toward settling for a law that wasn’t much closer to negating all that Obamacare has changed.
In the end, McCain the maverick may have done one of the most senatorial duties of his career — taking one for the team.