John McCain’s return echoes Ted Kennedy’s final days, but mission is far different

WASHINGTON — Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, diagnosed with brain cancer just days ago, made his return to Congress on Tuesday to help his party move ahead with its controversial health care overhaul bill.

The dramatic trip strongly echoed the actions of Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who in the last year of his life made several trips to Washington as he suffered from the same form of brain cancer, although his mission was much different.

When Kennedy went to Washington in November 2008, he was advocating for universal health care. Today, the Republicans’ plan to repeal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act would result in 32 million fewer people with health insurance; their alternative “repeal and replace’’ plan would reduce insurance rolls by 22 million.


And on Tuesday, Republican senators did not even know what version of the Senate bill they would be voting on, did not have any bill text, and had not held any public committee meetings on any version of the legislation. With McCain’s vote, the Senate waded into the next round of debate, but no one knows what form the bill will take.

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Kennedy died in 2009, before pivotal votes on the health care law, which passed in 2010. But he captured headlines after Obama’s election victory over McCain, who was the Republican presidential nominee.

“I feel fine,” Kennedy said during that November trip to advocate for health care for all. The longtime senator, according to Globe reports from the time, used a cane and the help of his wife, Vicki, to maneuver through the Capitol.

“I’m looking forward, particularly, to working with Barack Obama on health care,” the 76-year-old veteran lawmaker added.

He cast the deciding vote to protect Medicare payments to doctors in 2008. Kennedy was a key driver in early drafts of the ACA. He also traveled to Washington to cast a deciding vote to proceed on Obama’s stimulus package in February 2009, pushing it past a possible Republican filibuster, a key hurdle in the path to becoming law.


“He is a hero,” then-California Senator Barbara Boxer said after the stimulus vote. “Because the fact is, we needed his vote today.”

Democrat John Kerry, who was serving in the Senate with Kennedy at the time, said of his Massachusetts colleague’s return in 2008, “This is so super-exciting. I just feel emotional about it.”

McCain, with a surgical scar over his left eye, had the chance to be a similar type of hero to fellow Republicans in his caucus, who have been pledging to repeal the ACA for seven years.

The GOP-controlled Senate vote — on a “motion to proceed’’ — started debate on the GOP bid to repeal the ACA. Without McCain, who is expected to vote for the bill, Republicans could only afford to lose one GOP vote. As it was, they lost two -- Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both voted no. Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie.

McCain coming back gives the Republicans more cushion, and his return, featuring a standing ovation from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, was a memorable moment.


In 2008, Kennedy was greeted by a large banner that said “Welcome Back Senator!” and a round of applause heard well beyond the closed doors of the caucus meeting room. And in honor of Kennedy, the Democrats got a Massachusetts favorite for their weekly lunch: Legal Sea Foods.

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.