Dying McCain Preaches High Road on Health Care, But McConnell Stays on the Dark Side as Countless Lives Are at Stake


An epic struggle pitting the darkest forces in politics against the better angels of public service is unfolding in the Senate, as Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is ramming through a secretly written bill to deprive tens of millions of health care despite exhortations by Sen. John McCain to drop it and return to open bipartisan legislating.

“We tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors, in consultation with the [Trump] administration, then springing it on skeptical members—trying to convince them that it’s better than nothing. It’s better than nothing?” said an exasperated McCain, who flew back from Arizona after brain tumor surgery and appeared with stitches on his forehead. “Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition? I don’t think that’s gonna work in the end, and probably shouldn’t.”

McCain spoke after being among the last two Republicans to vote, creating a 50-50 tie that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence, which opens 20 hours of debate on McConnell’s proposals. McCain spoke of the honor that was required to be a public servant, reminded his colleagues that the Senate was a co-equal branch of government with the president, and urged them to reject McConnell’s manipulative gamesmanship as unworthy of their institution and the public's trust. 

“The [Obama] administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced the Congress without any opposition support, to support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare—and we shouldn’t do the same with ours,” McCain continued. “Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate? Where our customs encourage us to act. If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let’s return to regular order. Let the Health Education and Pensions Committee under Chairman [Lamar] Alexander and ranking [Democratic] member [Patty] Murray hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides.”

That last line brought an ovation from the Democrats and some Republicans. But despite McCain’s confession about previously wanting to win out of pure spite, ruing that today’s politics have become more partisan and tribal than ever, his stark condemnation of the GOP-led Senate “getting nothing done,” and saying he would not support anything close to what McConnell has drafted, the sphinx-like Majority Leader sat through McCain’s sermon and then introduced a strike-all amendment. That’s a completely new bill that nobody but his staff has reviewed, although its broad contours are known: return health insurance to where it was before Obamacare passed in 2010, cut federal Medicaid funding by more than a third and reverse Obamacare’s tax surcharges on businesses and the rich.

Whether or not McCain’s appeal to Senate Republicans was heard will be seen in the coming days. McConnell quickly followed McCain’s high-minded words by returning to the political snake pit where winning is everything—after years of campaign rhetoric trashing all things Obama while ignoring the real-life circumstances of millions who gained access to health care because of the Affordable Care Act. McConnell introduced his replacement bill, which was read by the clerk and resounded with sections cutting taxes for the rich while dismantling Obamacare and Medicaid.   

“We have a Senate with a great chance before us to do our part now,” McConnell said before the vote on proceeding with debate. “If other senators agree and join me on voting yes on a motion to proceed, we can stand one step closer to sending legislation to the president for his signature. I hope everyone will seize the moment; I certainly will. Only then can we open up a robust debate process. Only then can senators have the opportunity to offer additional ideas on health care.”

Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic Leader, responded that McConnell’s rhetoric was utterly deceitful—there had been no debate or Democratic input, and his legislative strategy a ruse, giving the far-right House Freedom Caucus power to revise whatever the Senate may pass. He said it was past time to do what McCain would urge—start writing a bill incorporating compromises even if they disappoint each party’s purists.

“We all know what’s happening here. The leader could not get the votes for full repeal because it is so damaging to America. He could not get the votes, even on his own bill,” Schumer said. “So instead the plan is to come up with a proposal that’s simply a means to a repeal, a means to dramatic cuts, a means to getting us in conference [committee] and we all know what the results of that conference will be. I would plead one last time… Turn back. We can go through regular order. We want to work with you. We know that ACA is not perfect. But we also know what you have proposed is much worse.”

Only two Republican senators voted no: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, the former Alaska House majority leader and daughter of an Alaskan governor; and Maine’s Susan Collins, who was previously the state’s insurance commissioner. Both know the impact on their states’ poor, working- and middle-class families of reduced health care safety nets.

What’s unfolding in the Senate is not just a battle over one-sixth of the economy, where the consequences will be felt by every household and business in America that struggles with health care costs. The Senate floor has become the latest stage in American politics where the forces of political darkness (we win, we rule) are battling opposing forces of political light (we negotiate, we compromise). The alternative to McConnell, to secretive Trumpcare legislation, to House Freedom Caucus dictates and to the White House gloating about today’s “big step,” is a functioning legislative process.

No recent bill so sharply focuses the country on this deep dysfunctional divide in the political system as the GOP’s health safety net repeal. If McConnell succeeds, then the forces of darkness—inside ball, rule by dictate, non-transparency, postponed accountability—will set the tone for the Congress and Trump administration. That’s what McCain, who is looking at little time left due to the same kind of aggressive brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy, was imploring fellow Republicans to surmount. McCain, a legislator no one has ever called progressive, was arguing for deliberative governance, not skullduggery.

“Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle,” he implored. “That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires. We are getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done! All we have really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.”

“Our health care insurance system is a mess,” McCain continued. “We all know it: those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done! We Republicans have looked for a way to repeal and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price. We haven’t found it yet and I am not sure we will. All we managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it. I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It is a shell of a bill right now. We all know that.”

Outside the Senate chambers, predictable politicking continued.

Trump, who either did not hear or ignored McCain’s pointed criticism of him and McConnell, praised the senator in typical vacuous fashion at a White House event. “I want to thank Sen. John McCain, a very brave man, tough trip to get here and vote. I want to thank Sen. McCain and all the Republicans who passed it with one Democratic vote. It’s a shame. But that’s the way it is. It’s very unfortunate. But I want to congratulate the American people because we’re going to give you great health care.”

On the steps of the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi railed against the House GOP for taking up legislation to deprive people of access to the courts, and “here [in the Senate] they’re taking away the right, not a privilege, the right to health care for all Americans. We can’t let them do that. We cannot let them sabotage the Affordable Care Act. Now we’re going to see what the other party will put up.”

In the halls outside the Senate chamber, a parade of Democratic senators weighed in.

“We all know who will call the shots when the bill gets to [a House-Senate] conference [committee], the Freedom Caucus, which will be for full repeal or something even worse than what came from the House, and remember, a whole number of Republican senators said they wouldn’t vote for it,” Schumer said. “They are under a tremendous amount of pressure from the hard right. You’ve seen the threats that have been made against people like [Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff] Flake and [Nevada Republican Sen. Dean] Heller. But they know it’s the wrong thing to do substantively. They know it’s the wrong thing to do politically. And we have a darn good chance to beat this.”

“What John McCain did, in his speech afterward, was really set the stage for this debate on reconciliation [McConnell’s tactic to pass the bill with 51 votes, not 60.] He made it clear, as Sen. McConnell sat there and listened, that the approach that the Republicans have used to reach this moment is unacceptable,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL. “It’s unacceptable when you consider the history of the Senate and the good of the country. And McCain said it so effectively… The only thing I would add is we adopted 140 Republican amendments on the Affordable Care Act. It was bipartisan process. We had hearings. In the end it was all Democratic votes, but it wasn’t for our lack of effort.”

“Here’s what I think we’ve got to remember: there wasn’t a single one of us who was elected to this office to cut off health insurance for innocent people across America,” Durbin continued. “And that’s exactly what every version of the Republican bill will do, including the one they’re reading on the floor at this moment. We’ve got to make sure that at the end of the day we expand the reach of health care, keep health care affordable, make sure the health insurance policies really do protect people from the abuses we saw over and over again, and make sure that whatever we do is not based on a massive tax cut for the wealthiest people in this country.”

“This is a very sad day for a majority of Americans when we watch one more time Mitch McConnell and the Republicans carry out a political exercise—for them, this is a political exercise of winning and losing,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI. “For the majority of Americans, it’s personal. It’s their life. It’s their child’s life. It’s their parent’s life in a nursing home. It’s their own.”

“For the seven months that we have been engaged in fighting back, we have seen the overwhelming majority of the American people agree with us in the belief that health care is a basic human right. The Republican majority really does believe that it’s a privilege for a few,” she said. “So now here we are... But fundamentally, as John McCain said today, and I know the people of Michigan expect this from me, we ought to be putting this aside and focus on working together to lower the costs of health care." 

Inside the Senate chambers, the first Democrat to speak was Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who like Maine’s Susan Collins, was a former state insurance commissioner. “I never thought, this senator never thought, on the issue of the vote that we would see a vote to advance a bill, that to so many feel like it is going to harm so many of our fellow Americans. Obviously, we can disagree on specifics. But we have seen that particular expression of harm over and over—in the coverage of town meetings where people stood up and said if I didn’t have this health care I’d be dead.”

The Senate’s health care bill, unlike any recent piece of legislation, is a matter of life of death,not just for multitudes of Americans, but also for the political chamber that prides itself on deliberation, compromise, checks and balance. It took an elderly senator facing a terminal diagnosis to lay out the stakes for the health of American democracy and the people it is supposed to represent. But moments later, the winning-is-everything thugs running the Senate turned away and introduced their stealth legislation. What unfolds in the 20 hours of debate over the next few days will define American lives and politics for years to come.

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