It was a dramatic moment, as dramatic moments go in the U.S. Senate. In the midst of an early-morning vote on a measure that would have crippled the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Arizona Republican John McCain walked to the front of the Senate floor and cast an emphatic "no" vote, eliciting cheers – presumably from Democrats – in the chamber.
His vote effectively sounded the death knell for the so-called skinny repeal, a cynical bit of legislation that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to squeeze through in the middle of the night without significant debate or review.
But that moment of drama was possible not because of McCain, but because of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, where the tea party has elected and reelected a right-wing governor (the Trumpian Paul LePage), and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who withstood significant pressure and, apparently, funding threats to her state from the White House to vote for measures to repeal Obamacare.
In fact, were it not for the political spines of those two women, McCain's little bit of showboating wouldn't have happened. McConnell needed at least 50 GOP votes to force a tie and let Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote – as he did to let "repeal and replace" come up for debate when Collins' and Murkowski's opposition threatened to derail GOP efforts to undo Obamacare.
McCain voted then to let the matter proceed because he wanted "to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered" to the repeal and replace effort.
But McCain's been around long enough to know that given the hard fractures within the GOP caucus around healthcare, there was no discernible path forward. If he had sincere, principled opposition to what was going on, he could have voted to end it there. But he didn't.
Further, he voted for the initial "repeal and replace" measure when it came up Tuesday, which won only 43 of the necessary 51 votes (all three recent vote results are here), even after saying that "I will not vote for the bill as it is today." He did vote against a subsequent partial repeal measure on Wednesday.
In contrast, Collins and Murkowski have solidly opposed the current efforts to blow up Obamacare. McCain could have, and should have, joined Murkowski and Collins in the first vote and ended the charade.
But he didn't. It seems odd now to applaud him for a vote against "skinny repeal" when he helped set the table for it to come up in the first place. The loudest applause belongs to Murkowski and Collins for ensuring the efforts failed.
Oh, and that 50-50 tie made possible by McCain's vote, less than two weeks after surgery that revealed his brain cancer? Among the 50 votes to block the measure was that of Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who traveled to Washington a few weeks after her own surgery as part of treatment for stage 4 kidney cancer. She deserves some applause too.