WASHINGTON — As John McCain was heading into an early-morning, pivotal vote on Republican hopes to repeal Obamacare, he didn’t give away how he’d go.
“Watch the show,” he told reporters.
That they did, in one of the more exciting moments in recent memory on Capitol Hill.
It wasn’t just that all week, no one could really say for certain which way Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would go, as their strategy was to shepherd legislation through without having an actual bill. What they had instead was what McCain called a “shell,” and his colleague Lindsey Graham called a “fraud.”
The “show” of the week was really in the disorientation, an atmosphere that seems to be pervasive throughout much of Washington and fomented by a disruptive president.
The Republicans say they want results, but so far they are being defined by the drama. If it hasn’t been confusing, nail-biter votes on Capitol Hill, it’s been the infighting at the White House.
For a time on Thursday evening, Anthony Scaramucci’s expletive-filled rant to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, revealed hours before the vote, overshadowed what was going on at the Capitol.
Some Senate Democrats even expressed fears that all the focus on Scaramucci in the final hours before the vote would take public pressure off GOP lawmakers, anxious to come up with any plan to send over to the House.
Each half hour seemed to indicate that Republicans were coming around to a novel plan to vote for a bill only on the assurances that it wouldn’t really become law.
Early in the evening, McCain, Graham and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) appeared together at a press conference to condemn the GOP plans for a so-called “skinny” repeal. Then, after getting some assurances from House Speaker Paul Ryan that it’d be overhauled in the conference committee, Graham and Johnson switched in favor, and the assumption seemed to be that McCain would be swayed to a “yes” as well.
Outside the Capitol, hundreds of protesters gathered for another demonstration, as they have off and on for the past few weeks, with the motto, “Kill the bill.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, tried to energize them, but there also was plenty of worry and resignation that the repeal effort would narrowly pass. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called it a “disaster taking place on the floor right now.”
For all the late-night anticipation, the more raucous day was Tuesday. Three dozen journalists packed a Capitol hallway, waiting for GOP senators to emerge from a luncheon before going to the floor to vote on a motion to proceed. The reporters rushed toward any lawmaker who emerged, anxious for any scrap of information on what would actually be in the bill. Then the journalists would recede like an ocean wave, once it became clear that senators were still in the dark.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with a slight grin on his face, walked into the Senate chamber to shouts of “Shame!” from protesters in the gallery, an outburst that itself was a rarity for the decorous surroundings.
But he had the votes, and when McCain returned from Arizona, where he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, all the Senate gave him a standing ovation. McCain voted “yes” on the motion to proceed, then soon after gave a speech where he admonished the Republicans for straying from Senate procedure in their quest to undo the health law, while condemning TV and radio pundits who so often dictate the terms of debate. “To hell with them!” he said.
It was a stirring moment, but not quite the climax.
David Frum, columnist for The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, tweeted soon after, “In the movies, John McCain hauls himself from his sickbed, delivers the big speech, then votes No. This ain’t the movies.”
Early Friday morning, McCain stood before the Senate clerk, raised his arm and then pointed thumbs down. There were gasps heard in the chamber, and then applause from Democrats.
After that moment, Frum revised his cinematic assessment of the week and wrote, “Yes it is.”