Senator John McCain reclaimed his maverick status when he killed the Republican effort to unravel the Affordable Care Act early Friday morning, keeping President Obama’s legacy alive.
But the Arizona Republican couldn’t and didn’t kill it alone. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska went maverick long before McCain. On Tuesday, the two women resisted enormous pressure from President Trump and party leaders when they voted “no” on a procedural measure to open debate on Obamacare repeal. That forced Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie. Before that, Collins and Murkowski took a stand against the Senate’s half-baked repeal effort, saying they couldn’t support it without an acceptable replacement plan. Initially, Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia voted with Collins and Murkowski against the Senate bill, saying she didn’t go to Washington “to hurt people.” But Capito ultimately switched to a “yes” vote.
With Collins and Murkowski on the record against the repeal legislation, Pence stood ready early Friday morning to break a tie once again. That set up McCain’s undeniably dramatic moment. He returned to the Senate after a brain cancer diagnosis, just to take part in the contentious health care debate. He cast a “yes” vote to let debate on Obamacare repeal move forward, followed by a stirring speech calling for bipartisanship. No one really knew what McCain would do after that, and it seemed possible that a lawmaker receiving the best possible health care could yet back a measure that stripped health insurance from poor people. His vote to move debate forward, after all, drew a complimentary tweet from the president — “Brave -American hero!” — a turnaround for Trump, who as a candidate, declared McCain, a former prisoner of war, “a war hero because he was captured.”
McCain showed courage in returning to Washington after his diagnosis — but so did Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii with Stage 4 cancer, who also made it to Washington to vote against the Senate health care bill. And, while McCain showed independence in voting against the “skinny repeal” amendment, as a matter of political reality, he had little to lose. He is 80 and gravely ill. He owes Trump nothing but contempt. With this vote, he recasts himself as a political hero to liberals who were disappointed when he walked away from issues he once championed, like immigration reform, not to mention by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, in 2008. Now McCain will be remembered for standing up to his party and going down fighting for principle, confusing as his lead-up to that principle might be.
From the start, Collins was clear in stating why she opposed this Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. It would create great uncertainty for people who rely on the ACA and cause further turmoil in the insurance markets. She urged the Senate to do its job the old-fashioned way and hold hearings to examine ways to fix the ACA’s flaws. Murkowski took a mean Trump tweet in stride and didn’t fold under pressure, despite a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who, according to the Washington Post, relayed the message that her vote jeopardized Alaska’s standing with the administration.
In the end, the principle behind Obamacare lives, not just because of one Republican senator who rediscovered his maverick roots. Two Republican colleagues — who also happen to be women — were there first.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.