John McCain took the Senate floor this afternoon to a standing ovation from senators from both parties, and whoops from Republicans. The applause from the Democratic side of the chamber didn’t last long—the Republican senator quickly voted “yes” to a motion that is the first step towards repealing Obamacare, the health care law McCain’s party has been trying to destroy for years.
In the midst of being treated for a form of brain cancer that is nearly always fatal, McCain flew from his home state of Arizona to cast his vote, and in doing so helped set in motion a series of events that experts warn could bring the US healthcare system to a complete collapse. McCain’s vote split the Senate 50-50, which allowed vice president Mike Pence to come in with a tie-breaker in favor of proceeding.
McCain also handed a much-needed victory to president Donald Trump, a man who once mocked McCain’s years as a prisoner of war. Beleaguered by a steady drip of information from ongoing investigations into the Russian government’s meddling in the 2016 election, under fire for a wildly inappropriate speech to the Boy Scouts of America, and facing criticism for his outlandish threats towards his own attorney general, Trump desperately needs to prove to voters and donors that he’s an effective leader.
Trump’s efforts lobbying Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare have been sporadic, but he was quick to claim a win after the Senate vote.
Minutes after the tally was in, the obviously delighted president held a press conference at the White House, where he declared the vote a “big step,” and personally thanked McCain.
Because of his personal service to the nation and his calls for decency in politics, McCain has enjoyed a reputation as the anti-Trump Republican. After Tuesday’s Senate vote, he delivered a characteristic red-meat speech exhorting senators to stand up to the president, and decrying the unorthodox, bitterly bipartisan process that created the “shell of a bill” that he just voted to bring to the Senate floor.
Tuesday’s vote was just the latest proof that McCain’s fiery words are just that. McCain has voted in line with the Trump administration’s position 90.7% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s one of the lowest scores of all Senate Republicans, but still pretty rock-solid support for a president who has picked an inexperienced, unorthodox cabinet determined to destroy the agencies they run, and who continues to push the boundaries of ethical and behavioral norms.
The Republican-led Congress is now expected to maneuver through a series of votes that would eventually lead to a “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, which rolls back specific requirements (like the one that forces employers to offer health insurance to employees), and could snatch health insurance from 15 million Americans.
After the vote, a crowd of families with severely disabled children who had been protesting the bill gathered outside the Capitol building, where they spoke to Democratic senators who were exhorting them not to give up the fight. “Today was a gut punch,” Brian Schatz, the senior senator from Hawaii, told the crowd. Still, he said, “we are going to win the argument. The American people are on our side.”
McCain, however, is not.
Lola Fadulu contributed reporting