Senator John McCain may have sealed his legacy with his “no” vote on the GOP “skinny repeal” health care bill last month. He’s been lauded as a hero by Obamacare supporters and bashed as a traitor by the law’s detractors.* The story of how his vote came to be has been dissected from every possible angle and even documented with photos labeled like evidentiary offerings.
The night has reached legendary status for those following the health care saga. His vote led me to write a post in which I acknowledged that he had proven my skepticism of him wrong and that, to my surprise, he had actually backed up his words with actions to match.
But a few days ago, I remembered something that made me realize maybe McCain’s actions on the health care bill shouldn’t have been such a surprise. We actually might have had some foreshadowing of McCain’s health care vote a few months ago, immediately after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. And I’m not really sure how I didn’t think of this sooner, since I wrote about the revelatory incident at the time. Trump fired James Comey on May 9 of this year. The next day, the Senate held a vote on overturning an Obama-era rule meant to curb methane emissions.
Just like with the health care bill, the GOP was attempting to pass that bill back in May on a party line vote, so they only needed 50 Republican votes to pass it. (In the case of the methane rule, they were not using reconciliation but instead were using a special procedure under the Congressional Review Act or “CRA,” which I explained here). And, like with the health care bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the bill to the floor for a vote with 2 “no” votes already expected (in the case of the methane bill, the “no” votes were Senators Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins).
However, unlike the health care vote, in the case of the methane bill, Senator McCain hadn’t given any indication, prior to the bill coming to the floor, that his vote was even in question – he’d been expected to vote for it, and the bill was expected to pass. Once the bill was on the floor though, C-SPAN video showed McCain arguing with several other Senators on the floor and then – to the surprise of everyone there – registering his vote against the bill. With McCain as the third “no” vote, the bill failed.
The technical parallels between that vote three months ago and McCain’s recent vote against the health care bill are clear. But more significant are the substantive parallels between McCain’s willingness to vote “no” on each of these bills – and not just to vote “no,” but to vote “no” when he knew that his vote would determine whether these bills passed or failed.
Below, I’ve re-posted what I wrote about McCain’s surprise vote on the methane bill back in May (it’s just a portion of a longer post, so the lead-in may seem a little abrupt). In it, I wondered whether the methane vote was just a blip from McCain or a sign of bigger things to come. Of course we can’t ignore that the cancer diagnosis McCain received since that time may have brought added meaning to his vote on the health care bill, especially given the topic. And those close to him say he was genuinely annoyed by the disastrous process McConnell used to push the bill.
But looking back it definitely seems like McCain’s vote on the methane bill was a signal to both Trump and the party that if he got pushed too far, McCain would push back. I can’t say for sure if either of these votes were about Trump, but it does appear that McCain’s frustrations with Trump played at least some role in his willingness to buck the party. It takes a lot, but McCain does appear to have a red line with respect to Trump’s behavior, and once that line is crossed, McCain’s willingness to defy Trump just might rear its Maverick-y head.
I think there’s a teeny, tiny chance that maybe this could be a turning point for McCain. There actually was a vote that made it clear that something definitely snapped for him this week. The only question is whether it’s just a momentary break or whether he’s reached the point of no return. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans held a vote on overturning an Obama-era rule meant to curb methane emissions. Because they were using a special maneuver to reverse this rule, they only required a simple majority vote (i.e. Democrats couldn’t filibuster it).
So Republicans believed they had the votes to pass this legislation. But the vote unexpectedly failed on the Senate floor. The reason? Senator McCain had voted against it. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins were the other two votes against it, but their “no” votes had been expected. McCain had been expected to vote for it. So no one knows exactly what happened at the last minute to change his mind, but he was seen on C-SPAN video arguing with three other Senators on the Senate floor right before he registered his “no” vote.
So of course there was speculation on Twitter that he did it out of spite over the Comey firing. The Intercept even had a whole article making that case (I’ve never cited the Intercept here before because I don’t have enough experience with it to know if it’s reliable, but I thought their argument was interesting, so I’m using it here). However, other reporters pointed out that John McCain has a relatively friendly record (“relatively” being the key word) on environmental issues, and he had also previously expressed concern about using this particular procedural method for overturning the rule since it would bar the Bureau of Land Management from ever making a similar rule again. So McCain may have simply had substantive objections to this legislation.
Either way though, this was the first time Trump had any vote fail on the floor of either the House or the Senate. And McCain was the one who made it happen. Up until Tuesday, McCain had not been willing to do that. In fact, he hadn’t been willing to vote against Trump on anything other than one vote against Trump’s nominee for Budget Director (and that was only because that nominee, Mick Mulvaney, had voted for cuts to the military when he was a member of the House, and also because McCain knew his vote wasn’t going to sink the nomination). So Wednesday’s vote on the methane rule – that was something new and different.
Does it signal anything bigger to come, or was it just one small vote and we shouldn’t read anything into it?? Maybe McCain just needed to vent and get it out of his system and next week it’ll be back to business as usual – lots of talk and no action. I don’t know. And even if this is a new McCain, a genuinely maverick-y McCain, will he be able to push other members of his party enough for it to make a difference?? I still think it’s a long shot that we’re ever going to get any real oversight of Trump from this Republican Party. But hopefully we’ll find out soon, because we could really use some heroes right about now . . .
[To read this excerpt in its full context, please see the entire post here].
*I’d be remiss not to note that Senators Collins & Murkowski, along with the extremely dedicated activists who influenced them, played just as big – if not bigger – roles in the drama of the health care repeal failure, though they received far less attention.