John McCain’s curious repeal votes

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain stole the show this week with his dramatic return to the Senate to vote on the repeal of Obamacare, after surgery revealed he has brain cancer. Republican and Democratic colleagues alike gave him a standing ovation as the body narrowly voted to begin debate on the health care issue.

Before the vote, McCain made a stirring appeal to the chamber to abandon tactics of obstruction and return to the “regular order” of Senate business, with open committee hearings and the writing of legislation through bipartisan consultation — what was routine for most of his 30 years representing Arizona there.

In the speech, McCain also reported that he could not vote for the Republican bill authored as it was then written, wholly by members of his own party. It was a sentiment shared by at least a handful of other GOP senators, but on the vote to bring it to the Senate for debate, he voted yea. He remains, after all, a loyal party man who was its 2008 presidential nominee.

His vote brought the Republican total to 50 and created a tie that promptly was broken in his party’s favor by Vice President Mike Pence, as president and presiding officer of the Senate. Under its rules called reconciliation, a majority was all it took.

But on subsequent votes on amendments to an already passed House bill, the rules required 60 votes for Senate passage, and one offered by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas fell well short, 43-57. Yet McCain, who had just so full-throatedly declared he could not vote for the bill as written, nevertheless voted with his party leadership. He offered no reason or rationale for this obvious contradiction.

The next day, when another GOP proposal was offered simply to repeal Obamacare, it also failed by a wide margin, 45-55, with McCain voting no. The reputed maverick seemed to be for repealing the hated Democratic health-care law, except when he wasn’t.

McCain’s dramatic flight from Arizona to Washington to keep alive the struggling repeal-and-replace effort served only to keep it on life support. The House version itself had required an 11th-hour mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to survive, and continuing the job in the Senate still seemed questionable.

Politically, however, after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had all but intoned last rites over his Senate bill, Trump’s late bid to revive it has enabled him to claim at least its temporary survival. He can say, and no doubt will brag, that only he could pull this particular rabbit out of his hat.

Democratic strategists hence are obliged to point to the 2018 off-year congressional elections, in which they will need to take away only three Republican seats to regain the Senate majority. But only eight GOP-held seats will be at stake, while 23 seats will be contested that are now held by the Democrats and two by independents who regularly vote with them. It will be daunting task.

In any event, McCain no doubt will strive to retain his maverick image while declining to break party ranks when GOP loyalty calls. Along with his resume as a former prisoner of war who was tortured in Vietnam — for which he was derided by candidate Trump — he remains a personal friend and hero of many colleagues across the Senate aisle in this most contentious of partisan times.

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Jules Witcover is a nationally syndicated columnist.