It was quintessential John McCain: a dramatic return to the Senate to salvage the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort — followed by a speech blasting the process his party used to get there.
The Arizona Republican sported a scar above his eye from surgery that resulted in a brain cancer diagnosis, quipping that he was “looking a little worse for wear,” but pointedly chided his party’s leaders for crafting a health care bill in private and attempting to jam it past any resistance.
Some Obamacare supporters had held out hope that McCain would use his theatrical homecoming to deliver the deciding vote against starting debate, rebuking the president who had mocked his decorated service in the Vietnam War. But McCain, who prides himself on respect for Senate tradition, was unlikely to make a difficult cross-country journey days after his cancer diagnosis only to tear down his colleagues’ foundation for Obamacare repeal before Republicans could try to build it out.
Instead, McCain waved spiritedly to a throng of reporters as he entered the chamber he’s called home for 30 years, served as the crucial 50th vote to proceed to a repeal debate, and delivered a passionate speech undercutting the “shell of a bill” he had just agreed to take up.
“Our health care insurance system is a mess,” McCain said on the floor, adding of Obamacare: “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 nudged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to abandon the one-party approach to passing a health care bill and start over, with committee hearings and a standard process, as Democrats have long urged.
“Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act?” McCain said. “If this process ends in failure, which seem likely, then let’s return to regular order.”
And he didn’t stop at health care. McCain declared that even with full control of Congress and the White House, the GOP is “getting nothing done” beyond the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
He never mentioned President Donald Trump by name, but denounced “the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet” — a subtle reference to the bitterly partisan culture that Trump has only intensified since entering the political arena. McCain’s wife Cindy, reportedly poised to take a job in Trump’s State Department, joined him in the Senate and greeted GOP leaders warmly outside the chamber.
Even before his in-person arrival, McCain’s return heightened the suspense surrounding an already historic vote to start the Obamacare repeal debate. With Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting no, his presence proved necessary for McConnell and Trump to avoid disastrous defeat.
Both the president and majority leader expressed gratitude to McCain on Tuesday, even as he declared that he could not vote to repeal Obamacare without significant alterations to the GOP bill crafted in consultation with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a critic of the GOP’s efforts thus far.
“We all know Sen. McCain is a fighter,” McConnell said on the floor before the Arizonan came back to the Hill. “That’s evidenced by his remarkable life of public service, just as it is evidenced by his quick return to the Senate this afternoon.”
Trump hailed McCain in not one but two Tuesday tweets. The president called McCain an “American hero,” apparently changing his mind two years after declaring on the campaign trail that “he’s not a war hero” and “I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, earning several medals for valor.
McCain said he plans to remain in the Senate to manage floor consideration of the annual defense authorization bill, part of his duties as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, before returning to Arizona for further treatment for his glioblastoma — the same type of tumor that killed his friend, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
“I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me,” he said.
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