An oral history of John McCain’s thumbs-down vote on repealing the ACA


In the early hours of July 28, 2017, one year ago Saturday, Sen. John McCain slowly walked onto the floor of the Senate. The chamber was tense; two other Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, had already announced they would vote against the GOP’s “skinny repeal” bill — a measure that would have permanently repealed the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, among other provisions.

As McCain’s turn to vote arrived, the Senate clerk nodded to him. The Arizona Republican paused, then gave a dramatic thumbs down, eliciting gasps from the Democratic side of the chamber and grim looks of resignation from the GOP leadership that had spent the past few hours trying to get him to change his mind.

The Fix has compiled a short oral history of that moment, based on interviews with McCain’s Senate colleagues. Watch them describe the night in the video above.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.): You remember what was at stake. This was about rolling health care back for millions and millions and millions of people. And we were a 48-52 Senate at that moment. The bill had already passed the House. And we all knew if it got even 50-50, people were going to lose health care around this country, because the vice president would break the tie and roll back this health care.

And so Susan Collins had already committed. Lisa Murkowski had already committed.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine): Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska], who was the third Republican, and I had gone over to talk with John. He had just gotten back. He had found out that he had this devastating diagnosis, and he had been listening to the arguments that we had been making that past week.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES E. SCHUMER (D-N.Y.): I spent a lot of time talking to John McCain in the days leading up to that. We were very close.

WARREN: And we’re all on the floor that night for the vote, including the vice president, who’s wandering around and trying to make sure that all those folks are staying in line on the Republican side.

COLLINS: And we were talking about it and what he was going to do. And all of a sudden he pointed to both of us and said, “You two are right.” And it was then that I knew he was going to vote no.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-Ky.): He’s pretty much a contrarian in a lot of ways. I mean this is a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and who has a temper.

WARREN: I was standing at the desk like I just couldn’t sit down. I was too anxious and watching the votes.

And so we had all the Democrats — that’s 48. Susan Collins voted no. That gave us 49. Lisa Murkowski voted no. That gave us 50. Those were all the known commitments.

COLLINS: There was a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around and it was Vice President Pence, who clearly had been sent over to lobby John and to try to get him back into line, if you will.

WARREN: You’re looking around. Is there anybody else who might vote to save health care for all of these families? Where’s John McCain? And he’s not there.

COLLINS: So I excused myself so that they could have their conversation. Shortly after that, the president called him, and John went into the cloakroom to take that call before the vote occurred. It was a very dramatic moment on the Senate floor.

WARREN: And he rounds the corner, and I remember standing there watching, and he comes around that corner. No fuss, no muss, waiting for his name again.

COLLINS: And you could actually hear some gasps in the chamber when he did so.

SCHUMER: And I knew what would happen. John McCain again would do what he thought was the right thing no matter what the pressure.

COLLINS: To me that is one of the things that I so admire about John. He does what he thinks is right. And that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. We’ve had our tussles over the years and disagreement.

SCHUMER: That thumbs down could sum up his entire career. He did what he knew was right.

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