Paul Ryan couldn’t persuade him. Neither could Mike Pence. And in the end, President Donald Trump couldn’t reel in John McCain either.
The president made a last-ditch effort, calling the Arizona senator and key holdout on the GOP’s Obamacare repeal measure, as the bill’s fate hung in the balance, according to two sources familiar with the conversation. After Pence had spent about 20 minutes working McCain, the senator went off the floor to speak with Trump by phone, those sources said.
Whatever the men said, it didn’t work. Shortly before 1:30 a.m. Friday, McCain strode to the well of the Senate, and gestured his hand downward to vote “no.” Stunned gasps echoed throughout the chamber.
“I thought it was the right vote,” McCain told reporters as he left the Capitol. “I do my job as a senator.”
It was a shocking — yet fitting — coda for the Senate’s health care battle, starring the veteran senator with a well-polished maverick streak who within days went from Obamacare repeal’s savior to its executioner.
Days after being diagnosed with brain cancer, McCain on Monday announced he would travel the more than 2,000 miles to Washington, ultimately providing a much-needed GOP vote to open debate on repealing the health care law. He was then denounced by liberals for endorsing the very partisan process he excoriated on his return to Washington.
He signaled earlier in the week that he was no fan of repeal. He joined with moderates to oppose a bill to repeal large pieces of Obamacare without a replacement, even though he supported a very similar bill in 2015. McCain did cast a vote in support the Senate’s repeal-and-replace plan.
But in the early hours of Friday morning, the Arizona Republican, as well as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, dealt the fatal punch to the GOP’s seven-year campaign promise to shred Obamacare apart. He’s now become a hero for Democrats, effectively voting to protect the chief legislative achievement of President Barack Obama, his opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Getting there, however, included stunning twists and turns for the 80-year-old senator. Senators had no idea where McCain would land throughout much of Thursday, saying he vacillated in his position as the chaotic day unfolded. They had heard rumblings of three “nos” as early as Thursday afternoon, and one Republican insisted that the GOP could have secured McCain’s support had the vote been held earlier in the day.
Many entered the chamber for a vote, unprepared for what would happen.
“I thought he was a ‘yes’ and had been told he was a ‘yes’ when I came to the floor,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) recalled in an interview early Friday morning. “So when I came down and there were issues, I still — for whatever reason — thought they might be resolved. And then they were not.”
But as the first vote of the early morning hours on Friday — a procedural vote orchestrated by Democrats — Republicans slowly began to realize things weren’t going their way. GOP leaders ultimately held the vote open for an hour as all attention turned to flipping McCain to a yes.
It was a stark turnaround from just several hours prior. Concerned about the chance that their pared-down repeal bill would actually become law, around 10 Senate Republicans — as the group noshed on cheeseburgers, fries and fry sauce from a Utah restaurant chain — spoke up during a private party lunch to stress the need for a conference committee with the House, according to multiple senators.
McCain himself hammered at that point in a hastily-organized news conference late Thursday afternoon.
“I am convinced that we can move forward but we have to have assurances that we will go through a normal process,” McCain said then. “Right now what is not the case. And we do not have the assurances.”
Yet he then diverged from what everyone other than Collins and Murkowski were saying by preaching bipartisanship. It was a major signal he was uncomfortable with the looming vote he was about to take.
“We can’t make the same mistake we made in 2009,” McCain said “We’ve got to have Republicans and Democrats together.”
Ryan also waded into the Senate fight. The speaker spoke privately with numerous Senate Republicans, including a phone conversation with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) in Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s ornate office just off the Senate floor. McCain had a separate call with Ryan.
Ryan’s personal assurances that he would steer the House toward a conference committee with the Senate was enough for the likes of Graham. It wasn’t enough for his best friend in the Senate: McCain.
“Watch the show,” McCain tantalizingly hinted as he headed into the chamber for the consequential vote.
Inside, McCain was surrounded by a rotating cast of senators, including Graham, Murkowski, Collins and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). As he spoke to Murkowski, McCain flashed a thumbs down. Graham, Pence and others — including Trump, on the phone — tried to prevail on him.
But his mind wouldn’t change. McCain walked over to a gaggle of Senate Democrats and told them that he would be voting no on the Obamacare repeal measure. His mind had already sped ahead to what was next: the National Defense Authorization Act, a top priority for the Armed Services Committee chairman.
“Let’s get this over with,” McCain told the cluster of Democrats, according to senators. “I really want to do NDAA.”
McCain embraced Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Democrats pressed him about Collins and Murkowski: Where would they land? McCain said he couldn’t speak for them.
Nonetheless, Democrats were elated.
“I was trying not to jump up and down and smile,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
After the Obamacare repeal was dealt with on Friday morning, senators expected to turn their attention to the sweeping annual defense policy bill. But after the health care bill failed, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would not allow McConnell to move forward on the defense bill.
McCain is expected to travel back to Arizona over the weekend, and the defense bill may have to wait until September.
Meanwhile, McCain’s vote left his fellow Republicans in shock. They thought the skinny bill was what one person called a “shirts and skins exercise,” designed to put Republicans and Democrats and prevail on party lines. Several senators could barely speak after the party’s seven-year quest to gut Obamacare had seemingly ended in the middle of the night, with their war hero colleague traveling thousands of miles to kill their best shot at rolling back the law.
“Disappointed,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “I never comment on the way people vote. But I’m disappointed that we don’t have an opportunity.”
"Well, we had 49 people and had three that didn’t come through,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) remarked. “Tough night."
Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.