The Bizarre Theatrics of John McCain’s Return to the Senate
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is safe, for now. After a dramatic several days, the Republican Party’s efforts to repeal and replace the ACA have failed. The future of the 2010 health care law looked uncertain last Tuesday when Senator John McCain voted for the motion to proceed on consideration of the mystery Senate health care bill. Since then, Senator McCain has shocked the country, voting last Thursday to reject the “skinny repeal” of the ACA, effectively killing Leader McConnell’s effort to advance such dangerous legislation. It is now clear that senators will be forced to return to some semblance of “regular order” and conduct their business in a manner consistent with norms and traditions of the U.S. Senate.
Senator McCain is not the hero of this story. If he were truly opposed to the shady tactics of the majority party to advance hastily written legislation, he should have been standing with his colleagues Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in opposition the whole time. Last week’s drama could have been avoided entirely if Senator McCain had voted with Senators Collins and Murkowski against Tuesday’s motion to proceed on consideration of the repeal of the ACA. His dangerous theatrics were an insult to the millions of Americans whose health insurance hung in the balance. If Senator McCain were serious about his concerns with the crumbling reputation of the Senate, he should have dealt the final blow to the ACA repeal efforts well before last Thursday’s vote.
To be clear, John McCain is an American hero who has served the country honorably as a member of the armed forces and United States Senate. But his recent action to advance such disastrous legislation was a stain on his record as a public servant. His repeated calls for incremental progress and compromise mean nothing when he supported a process that excluded the minority party and blocked them from contributing to the effort to improve the ACA. If Senator McCain truly believed that the Senate should return to regular order and strive to reclaim its title as the greatest deliberative body in the world, he should have dealt the final blow to the shameful closed-door lawmaking encouraged by the Trump administration and voted against the motion to proceed. Instead, that vote marked a missed opportunity to boldly stand up to President Trump’s assault on our democracy. His support for the motion to proceed drew out a process that could have resulted in the passage of poorly crafted legislation that would have stripped millions of Americans of their health care. All this, despite his own recent healthcare troubles.
Last week, Senator John McCain revealed to the country that he has brain cancer. He was diagnosed with a primary glioblastoma—the same cancer that killed Senator Ted Kennedy. On Tuesday, Senator McCain flew back to Washington, DC to vote for the motion to proceed on debate over the Senate’s mystery bill to repeal and replace the ACA. His vote preserved the Republican Party’s effort to dismantle the ACA; Senators Collins’ and Murkowski’s “no” votes forced Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote. There is a cruel irony in the act of a cancer patient voting to begin a process that could have resulted in millions of Americans losing their health insurance.
But this would have been Senator McCain’s shameful legacy if the Republicans in Congress were successful in hobbling together a bill that made it to President Trump’s desk. What if Senator Collins or Senator Murkowski had been strong-armed into voting for the bill? If Senator McCain was truly serious about his impassioned pleas for a “return to regular order,” he should have voted against the motion to proceed and decisively ended the closed-door negotiations with a clueless Trump administration. Instead, we were dragged along for another two days of unnecessary drama and suspense.
In his floor speech following Tuesday’s vote, Senator McCain defended his actions, claiming that he voted for the motion to proceed to allow amendments to be offered from both parties. Seemingly unable to grasp the fact that Barack Obama is no longer president, he admonished the process by which the ACA was passed, saying “The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare.” Of course, this criticism ignores the fact that Republicans were not blocked from participating in the legislative process during consideration of the ACA. Republican members of Congress offered hundreds of amendments and participated in hours of committee hearings before the law was ultimately signed in 2010. The same cannot be said for the Democrats in the 115th Congress; no Democrat has been at the table during the negotiation of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) or the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA). To Senator McCain’s credit, he acknowledged that fact.
What was truly baffling about his speech, however, was his admission that the GOP’s current strategy for the repeal and replacement of the ACA “probably shouldn’t” be successful. If he was truly of the opinion that the Republican’s closed-door negotiating without Democrats shouldn’t yield a health care law, he could have voted no on the motion to proceed and forced the Republican leadership to restart the process in accordance with the rules and customs of the Senate.
Even more curious were Senator McCain’s jabs at the White House. He cautioned against listening to the loudest voices in our political discourse. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them!” This bold dismissal of reactionary political pundits—met with thunderous applause in the Senate chamber—could have easily been interpreted as a rebuke of President Trump’s vitriolic outbursts on Twitter and during speeches. He explicitly called out the bullying Republicans in Congress have received from President Trump, saying “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equal!”
This bold proclamation would have carried far more weight if Senator McCain hadn’t just done exactly what President Trump wanted him to do. Instead, McCain’s words rang hollow and followed a pattern all too familiar with congressional Republicans in the Trump era: Chastise the President, but vote for his agenda. His concerns and objections with President Trump’s assault on democratic norms and the dignity of the presidency mean nothing when he votes to support the goals and objectives of the Trump administration. Of course, he ultimately voted against the “skinny repeal” measure and forced Mitch McConnell to accept the most crushing defeat of his career. But it never had to come to this. He could have shut these negotiations down on Tuesday and entirely avoided all the drama of last week.
We may never know why Senator McCain chose to draw this process out in the dramatic fashion we saw last week. What we do know is that he is not the hero of the story. Rather, we should be celebrating the millions of Americans who engaged with their government, making phone calls and writing letters, telling their Senators that they would not accept the passage of such dangerous and cruel legislation. More credit should also be given to Senators Collins and Murkowski, who stood opposed to these theatrics from the beginning and voted against the motion to proceed on Tuesday. Senator McCain deserves thanks for voting against repeal of the ACA last night. But with a voting record overwhelmingly in support of President Trump’s preferences, he has a long way to go in proving that he is serious about repairing the damage inflicted on our institutions in the Trump era.