Shortly before Sen. John McCain entered the Senate chamber in the wee hours of Friday morning, reporters wanted to know how he’d vote.
He instructed them to “watch the show.”
McCain killed his party’s narrowly-crafted Obamacare repeal bill Friday not because he was opposed to dismantling the Affordable Care Act, but because he fundamentally believed the process — the lack of hearings, the one-party, closed-door negotiations, the fact that in the end all that Republican senators could agree upon was a shell of the plan they’d promised — was flawed.
It was a result that may have been hinted at earlier in the week.
Less than two weeks after surgery to remove a blood clot revealed McCain had brain cancer, the Arizona Republican — still with a visible scar above his eye — traveled 2,000 miles from Phoenix and returned to a hero’s welcome Tuesday in the Senate, where he delivered an epic 15-minute speech that rattled the conscience of the body.
“We’re getting nothing done, my friends,” McCain told his colleagues. “We’re getting nothing done.”
It was a fiery and intense lecture on the shortcomings of bypassing “regular order” and turning your back on compromise. But moments earlier, McCain had delivered a decisive vote to advance a health care bill that was still an uncertain product at that point, a kind of blessing for the type of secretive negotiations he’d just decried.
Friday morning, just before 2 a.m. ET, he delivered the fateful vote in the other direction. For over an hour, leadership tried to change his mind on the Senate floor on the “skinny repeal” bill. His junior colleague Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake appeared to be dispatched to talk him out of it. And when that didn’t work, Vice President Mike Pence swooped in. Even President Donald Trump called to try a final “Hail Mary” to sway McCain, a source briefed on the call told CNN.
At one point, McCain was sitting with his long-time ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The two were deep in conversation as Graham nodded along. At one point Graham took a call, and the man who just days before had received an outpouring of support from his colleagues on the floor was all alone, with no Republican approaching the veteran senator.
McCain has defied his party before. The former prisoner of war stood stood with Democrats to release a report on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during the Bush years. He reached across the aisle to fix the country’s health care system for veterans with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, and was known to unload on his own party when he felt they needed a reality check.
But Friday’s vote may be one of his most memorable moments. In the end, the senator voted against a bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act’s individual and employer mandates, despised by Republicans, and against his party’s seven-year campaign promise to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Instead, McCain took a vote that very well may re-chart the course of Trump’s own legislative agenda.
Trump, of course, had insulted McCain back in 2015. “He is a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said in a question-and-answer session in Iowa. “I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. He is a war hero because he was captured. OK, you can have — I believe perhaps he is a war hero.”
Earlier this week, after McCain’s vote advancing the health care bill, Trump was far kinder.
“So great that John McCain is coming back to vote. Brave – American hero! Thank you John,” Trump tweeted.
McCain promised a show on the way in, and delivered. Reporters and observers in the gallery watched his every movement as he spoke to various senators. At one point, he even huddled with Democrats. As he was speaking to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, other Democrats came closer and closer, forming a large half-circle around the former Republican presidential nominee, who, make no mistake, has worked to thwart Democratic ambitions over the years as well.
“John McCain is a hero and has courage and does the right thing,” Schumer said afterwards.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, had a feeling even earlier in the day that McCain may be on his side this time.
“We had a brief conversation that was intriguing and then several other senators also had other conversations with him. He was sort of leaving little hints, here and there,” Coons said.
After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Leader Mitch McConnell lamented the end result — McCain joining Republican holdouts Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins in ending the Obamacare repeal dream for the moment.
“I regret that we’re here,” McConnell said. “I’m proud of the vote I cast tonight. It’s consistent with what we told the American people we’d try to accomplish in four straight election if they gave us a chance.”
As McConnell lectured his GOP colleagues for failing to uphold their promises to voters to end Obamacare, McCain sat nearby, hands folded in his lap, with Murkowski by his side, as she had been for most of the night.
Later, as he got into his car to leave the Capitol, McCain was asked, “Why did you vote no?”
He answered simply: “Because it was the right vote.”