In the long, tumultuous political career of Senator John McCain, it would have been remembered as a turning point. It was only rumored at the time. But the Arizona senator nearly bolted from the Republican Party in 2001.
In secret negotiations with then-Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, McCain plotted how he would depart the GOP. He was furious over the way the party establishment had treated him in the 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination against the eventually victorious George W. Bush. And within weeks of Bush’s swearing-in as president in 2001, McCain told Daschle that he was looking for a way out of the GOP, probably by declaring himself an independent—a move that would have thrown control of the otherwise 50-50 Senate to the Democrats. The negotiations got far enough, Daschle later told me, that the two men discussed the logistics of the news conference at which McCain would make the announcement. “We came very close,” Daschle said.
All these years later, amid the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency and with McCain casting his historic vote last week to defy the White House and derail a fevered Republican effort to undo Obamacare, Daschle and other Democratic strategists and lawmakers are questioning whether the party should mount a new campaign to lure McCain and other wavering Republican senators away from the GOP.
Other obvious targets for the campaign, they said, would be the two female Republican senators who stymied the GOP’s repeal efforts last week: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“After what we’ve seen on health care, and on so many other issues, it is important for us to reach out to Republicans right now to let them know how welcome they would be to join us,” said Daschle, who left Congress in 2005 and now runs his own political advisory firm. “I’m sure some of those conversations may already be well underway.”
Republicans currently hold 52 Senate seats. Two or three defections would swing the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats—a political earthquake that would give Democrats control of the Senate confirmation process for executive branch and Supreme Court nominees, as well as the ability to launch more aggressive investigations of Trump and his administration, including of possible collusion between Russia and his 2016 presidential campaign. It would also make Republican priorities from Obamacare repeal to tax reform even less likely.
The last Senate defection occurred in 2009, when Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania left the Republican Party to become a Democrat, which gave the Democrats the all-important 60votes needed to break Senate filibusters. Daschle was his party’s chief negotiator in the 2001 defection of Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, who left the GOP after 26 years in Congress to declare himself an independent who caucused with the Democrats; the move gave Senate control to the Democrats in what had been a 50-50 Senate.
Daschle marveled Friday as he watched McCain, who has always relished his reputation as a political maverick, literally turn his thumb down and cast his dramatic vote on the Senate floor to kill a Republican bill to overhaul — and likely, undermine — President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“He’s my hero,” Daschle said of McCain. “I really mean that. He’s my hero. That’s exactly what somebody needed to do. It was a courageous act.”
Now, Daschle wonders, with McCain so obviously at odds with the Senate Republican leadership and with a Republican president who has belittled his heroic war record, and facing a dire prognosis of an especially aggressive form of brain cancer, would he be willing to cross the aisle, as he came close to doing 16 years ago?
“I think it’s unlikely he’d do it now, but John is an independent thinker,” Daschle said. In 2001, he said, McCain backed away from the idea of leaving the GOP only after Jeffords defected instead. He remembered McCain saying at the time: “Look, somebody else has given you the majority — you don’t need me anymore.”
Former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who succeeded Daschle as Democratic leader, said in an interview Friday that he had been delighted at McCain’s vote last week to block the Republican effort to derail Obamacare. It was, he said, a characteristic act of independence for his former colleague. “He’s my kind of guy,” Reid said.
“You bet I was happy,” he said. But thinking it through afterward, “I wasn’t surprised.” McCain’s vote last week, Reid said, was “something that people will always remember—it will be in the history books.”
Reid, who worked with Daschle in luring Jeffords away from the Republicans in 2001, would not speculate on whether McCain might now be tempted away from the GOP. The current Democratic Senate leadership, led by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, “doesn’t need Harry Reid to tell them what to do,” he said. (A spokesman for Schumer said Saturday the senator had no comment on any possible campaign to recruit Republicans away from the GOP. Spokesmen for McCain did not immediately reply to requests for comment this weekend.)
But a sitting Democratic senator, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Schumer on such a sensitive issue, said, “I’m just certain Chuck is already thinking about this—reaching out to McCain and Collins and Murkowski and others and asking if they really want to stand with the GOP. Do they really want to call themselves Republicans at a time when a Republican president and the party’s leaders in Congress are doing such damage to the party—and to the country?”
Senators Collins and Murkowski have openly criticized Trump in the past. And both have recently faced the president’s wrath. In the final hours before the health care vote last week, Murkowski’s staff has revealed, she received a threatening call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, warning that if she voted against the health care bill, the Trump administration would punish her resource-rich state by switching policies on energy exploration and road construction.
“If I were Chuck Schumer, I’d be talking to McCain, Collins, Murkowski—and everybody else,” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, the respected congressional historian and analyst. “And I would make not just a modest effort. I would make a deep effort to try to find some common ground” to persuade Republicans to cross the aisle.
Ornstein thought it was telling that, in the final minutes before the historic health care vote in the early hours of Friday morning, McCain was seen chatting happily on the Senate floor with Schumer and other Democrats he clearly considers friends—not with most of the Republican leaders he was about to outrage.
The Democrats, he said, can offer many incentives for Republicans to make the switch, including possible committee chairmanships in a Democratic-controlled Senate and other leadership positions. When Jeffords defected in 2001, for example, he was given chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, an especially powerful perch for Jeffords in his home state of Vermont. (McCain now chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, Collins chairs the Senate Aging Committee, and Murkowski chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.)
Still, Ornstein said, he was not optimistic that McCain or other Republicans would make the switch—at least not imminently. “One thing I’ve seen with these Republicans is that the tribal identity runs deep,” he said. “It’s like a religion, and I think that’s more true of Republicans than Democrats.”
What could change the equation, he said, would be a campaign by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell or Trump to punish or publicly humiliate the three rebel senators for their health care votes last week. “I can imagine that if McConnell tries to punish McCain, or if Trump really starts to go after him, there’s always a chance that McCain could say ‘screw you’ and bolt.”
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