Politics

John McCain Returns With a Strong Message

Ailing senator chides both sides after delivering GOP win

Arizona Sen. John McCain arrives in the Capitol to cast a vote to start debate on the Senate’s health care bill on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

By JASON DICK and DAVID HAWKINGS

Years from now, when the history of the modern Congress is written, John McCain’s address to the Senate on July 25, 2017, is likely to stand among the defining summations of the era.

“When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he said with his trademark sense of caustic understatement, “I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.”

The Arizona Republican made his return to the Capitol into a highlight-reel-worthy sampling of his political brand. His timing was impeccable, his presence pivotal. He was, by turns, self-deprecating and histrionic, bluntly combative and sounding impervious to the fray.

He sought to inflict as least as much rhetorical pain on his own Republican leaders as on the Democrats. And then he did the politically pragmatic thing he’d planned to do all along.

Eleven days after surgery that removed a malignant brain tumor, McCain defied prudent medical guidance and flew from his home in Arizona to Washington on Tuesday, arriving just in time to provide an essential Senate procedural vote in favor of his party’s effort to rewrite health care law.

Watch McCain's Arrival and Speech

And then, after the standing ovation upon his arrival and a series of embraces with most senators of both parties, he lambasted the tortured legislative path that had produced his moment for high drama and then excoriated the hyperpartisanship that has spawned such balky policy making.

“Our health care insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it,” the 80-year-old senator said while clutching the rostrum at his desk, a surgical scar over his left eyebrow and a bruised left check clearly visible.

“We Republicans have looked for a way to end it and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price. We haven’t found it yet, and I’m not sure we will. All we’ve managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it,” he said.

A cheeky response

Almost all the other 99 senators sat at attention at their desks, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s cheeks becoming florid as McCain laid much of the blame at the Kentucky Republican’s feet.

“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 — better than nothing — asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition,” McCain said. “I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t.”

He went onto say that, while agreeing to back McConnell on the first procedural hurdle, he would oppose passage of the final health care bill unless provisions to benefit Arizona were included.

Vice President Mike Pence, on hand to cast the tie-breaking vote that allowed debate on amendments to the health care legislation to begin, looked on with his customary impassivity even when McCain delivered a trio of zingers that seemed destined for all ears in the West Wing, starting with those of President Donald Trump.

“Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal,” McCain declared.

“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them!” he thundered to applause from senators on both sides of the aisle. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”

And during a part of the 15-minute speech that was a precis about American exceptionalism, and could have come from the draft of the inaugural address he hoped to give in 2009, McCain summarized the national character this way: “We don’t hide behind walls, we breach them.”

It’s complicated

Just how complicated his thesis is to “return to regular order” and get back to “incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems” was underscored by the fact that McCain’s vote delivered a win for Trump and McConnell.

It was Trump after all who questioned McCain’s heroism in 2015 by brushing aside the Arizonan’s nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Despite Trump’s praise for McCain on Tuesday as a “brave man,” the campaign trail derision cuts deep.

And it was McConnell who led the charge to torpedo one of McCain’s signature legislative priorities, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. McConnell then appropriated that law’s acronym — BCRA — for his own health care legislation, the Better Care Reconciliation Act.

“Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning,’” McCain said, using air quotes to emphasize his derision of one of the president’s favorite terms. 

As McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn sat stone-faced at the criticism of the current process, along with most of their GOP colleagues, Democrats frequently broke into applause, even with the knowledge that McCain had voted to proceed to the measure they loathe. 

His wife, Cindy McCain, in a canary yellow dress, sat in a visitor’s gallery on the GOP side of the chamber and wiped away tears several times.

McCain, never one to grow maudlin, ended his treatise with the customary self-deprecation his colleagues and constituents know well, saying he looked forward to the debate in the days to come on health care and then managing a measure near and dear to his heart, the defense authorization bill that sets Pentagon policy. 

“I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me. And, I hope, to impress on you again that it is an honor to serve the American people in your company,” he said, yielding the floor and receiving his fellow senators and their further well wishes.  

Afterward, McConnell said he agreed with McCain that the parties need to come together, but said health care is one issue that bedevils the two parties — despite his shutting out Democrats and even members of his party from the health care talks that led to this moment.

“There’s a lot of things that we have done and will continue to do on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell said. “Regretfully the issue of health care has not fallen into that category on either side.”

McCain had been scheduled to deliver remarks to the media outside the Senate floor in the Ohio Clock Corridor, but after his speech, he canceled the event, perhaps sensing he had left everything on the floor. 

His departure from the Capitol on Tuesday underscored his unique status as both lawmaker and cultural icon. No big, black SUV for him, McCain and his wife got into a four-door blue Ford Fusion sedan with a driver. As the senator got into the front seat, tourists flagged him down and thanked him, and wished him well. 

“Thank you,” he replied as they snapped photos, flashing the two thumbs up he had just deployed on the floor to indicate his ‘aye’ vote on the health care vote. “Thank you.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this story.

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