WASHINGTON — In high drama at the Capitol, Sen. John McCain on Tuesday delivered a crucial vote in the Republican drive to dismantle the health care law, a win for President Donald Trump and GOP leaders, and then leveled a broadside at how the GOP got there.
As the 80-year-old McCain entered the chamber, Republicans and Democrats applauded and whooped, with a few hugs for the six-term Arizona lawmaker who is battling brain cancer. “Aye,” he said for the GOP vote to move ahead on debate.
After he voted, McCain stood at his seat and accepted hugs and handshakes from all senators in both parties, drawing laughter from the gallery when he and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders exchanged an awkward hug.
McCain then spoke on the Senate floor, his face pale, cheek bruised and a visible red scar and stitches above his left eye where doctors had removed a blood clot. His voice strong, he offered a bit of self-deprecation before launching into an impassioned speech, saying he was “looking a little worse for wear.”
He bemoaned the lack of legislative action in Congress, the GOP’s secretive process in working on repealing and replacing Obamacare and a plea for Democrats and Republicans to work together.
“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio, television and Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood,” McCain said. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”
He reminded his colleagues: “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal!”
McCain also said he would not vote for the current GOP version of the repeal-and-replace bill.
McCain drew a standing ovation after his remarks. He had cast his vote to take up the health care bill, delivering for his party and Trump on the issue that’s defined the GOP for the past seven years.
“He’s tough as a boot,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “Many people understandably would be curled up in bed in the fetal position.”
McCain himself campaigned heavily on the “Obamacare” repeal issue last year as he won re-election to a sixth and almost certainly final Senate term. And there could be sweet revenge in defying cancer to undo the signature legislation of the man who beat him for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama.
The Arizona senator has emerged as one of the president’s most outspoken GOP critics on Capitol Hill. During last year’s campaign Trump shockingly ridiculed McCain over his years as a POW during the Vietnam War.
McCain’s return was eerily reminiscent of a similar scenario involving McCain’s good friend, the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who returned to the Senate in July 2008 while battling brain cancer to vote on Medicare legislation, his dramatic entry in the chamber eliciting cheers and applause. Ted Kennedy died of cancer in August 2009 (the current Sen. Kennedy is no relation).
The possibility of McCain returning had been discussed around the Capitol on Monday, yet the announcement from his office late in the day came as a surprise.
McCain has not been overly enthusiastic about the GOP health bill or the partisan process through which it’s emerged. After an earlier version was poised to fail, he called on McConnell to reopen the process with a bipartisan approach, advice the majority leader ignored.
But McCain’s best friend in the Senate Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and other colleagues who’ve spoken with McCain of late, say he’s been itching to get back to the Senate, impatient to return to work.
“Is it surprising that he would get out of a hospital bed and go to work? No,” Graham said Tuesday. “it’s surprising he’s been in the hospital this long.”