McCain’s ‘no’ vote on GOP health bill elicits gasps in Senate chamber

The “maverick” is back.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., shocked his conservative colleagues early Friday morning by defying President Trump to cast the decisive vote against the Republican Party’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Two other Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — had already voted “no” on the “skinny repeal” amendment when it came time for the former presidential candidate to announce his decision. With Democrats firmly opposed, the GOP could afford only two Republican defections to gut Obamacare.

When McCain, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, walked onto the Senate floor about 1:30 a.m. and voted “no” with a thumbs-down, the shock was palpable. Republican senators gasped while scattered applause came from Democrats.

This moment in the early morning hours effectively killed the replacement plan, known as the Health Care Freedom Act. It ended with a 49-51 vote.

McCain, 80, had returned to Washington from Arizona for the vote earlier this week with a visible scar above his eye from brain surgery. Trump welcomed him back.


Unknown to Trump — or, apparently, most of his Republican colleagues — McCain would tank the bill. As he entered the Senate chamber before the vote, McCain told journalists to “watch the show.” Afterward, he was quoted by reporters as saying he “thought it was the right thing to do.”


Even as the Senate voted, the New York Times was running an op-ed by columnist Paul Krugman titled “The Sanctimony and Sin of G.O.P. ‘Moderates,’” calling attention to “the awfulness of Senator John McCain,” who had cast the decisive vote to begin debate on a version of the Senate repeal bill. The column, obviously written earlier in the evening, assumed McCain would fall into line again.

Krugman updated his column to “reflect news developments” by adding this key sentence: “Awfulness somewhat, but only somewhat, redeemed by his last-minute vote.” The original version ran in the print edition.

After the vote, McCain released a statement reaffirming his commitment to repealing and replacing Obamacare with something that increases competition, lowers costs and improves health care, but said the new bill fell short of these goals.

“While the amendment would have repealed some of Obamacare’s most burdensome regulations, it offered no replacement to actually reform our health care system and deliver affordable, quality health care to our citizens,” he said. “The Speaker’s statement that the House would be ‘willing’ to go to conference does not ease my concern that this shell of a bill could be taken up and passed at any time.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) leaves the the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol after voting on the GOP 'Skinny Repeal' health care bill on July 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Three Senate Republicans voted no to block a stripped-down, or 'Skinny Repeal,' version of Obamacare reform. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Thursday afternoon McCain joined several Republican colleagues in saying they would vote for the bill only if they had assurances from House Speaker Paul Ryan that the lower chamber wouldn’t pass it in its current version. Whatever Ryan said presumably satisfied the others, including McCain’s close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. But McCain held out.

McCain has said repeatedly that a major failing of Obamacare is that Democrats “rammed” it through Congress on a strictly party-line basis without a single Republican vote. He argued that Congress should not repeat these same mistakes.

“We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people,” he continued. “We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve.”


There have been many reports of Republican senators being dissatisfied with the secretive manner in which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put the bill together.

McCain, a Vietnam War hero who was held prisoner by the North Vietnamese from 1967 until 1973, earned the reputation of a maverick for being willing to disagree with his party on certain issues over the course of his career in the Senate.

For instance, he pushed for a comprehensive bill to regulate the tobacco industry in the late ’90s and voted against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in the early 2000s.

Though many argued that this “maverick” spirit was nearly erased during McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, he’s drifted from the party line in more recent controversies. He defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin against conservative conspiracy theories in 2012 and the Khan family against Trump’s insults in 2016.

This latest vote will surely go down as one of those moments.

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