At 80, Sen. John McCain has seen plenty. So when Vice President Mike Pence approached his Senate desk after midnight, trying to save the Republican healthcare bill from defeat, McCain found himself again at the center of what mattered.
For 20 minutes they engaged. The Senate was supposed to be voting by now, but the bill’s passage, as Thursday turned to Friday, was suddenly at risk. McCain’s vote had been unknown, but now it was in doubt. The chamber came to a standstill.
Senators milled about, some Republicans stopping by McCain’s desk, others staying away, his longtime ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), always close by.
Then, with Pence having ducked out momentarily, McCain abruptly walked across the Senate floor to the Democratic side of the aisle, stunning everyone in the packed chamber. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and more than a dozen Democratic senators quickly gathered around.
What McCain told them privately seems obvious now. He would vote against the bill.
Except for a hug from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrats did not tip their hand.
Only when the roll call began did it become clear. McCain stepped up to cast his vote — a single down-turned finger — dooming the healthcare bill. Audible gasps filled the galleries, crowded with onlookers.
It cracked open a new divide in the Senate, which seems to be split not so much between Republicans and Democrats, but by those senators who want to work together and those stuck in hardened partisan tribes.
“I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to trust each other, stop the political gamesmanship, and put the healthcare needs of the American people first,” McCain said Friday. “We can do this.”
Schumer took an even longer view: “I hope what John McCain did would be regarded in history as a turning point, where the Senate turned back from its partisanship and started working together.”
Schumer was among the few who knew what his old colleague was up to. The Democratic leader had been talking with the Arizona Republican all week — four, five times a day — ever since McCain returned to work after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Earlier in the week, McCain had dramatically salvaged the stalled GOP bill by voting to begin debate, only to go on to deliver a blistering speech against his own party leaders’ partisan, closed-door process in crafting it.
Schumer and McCain have been the kind of frenemies who seem like throwbacks to an earlier era of Congress. They worked together on big legislation, including the 2013 immigration overhaul — grand ideas that seem all but impossible in today’s Congress.
They had plenty to discuss. “About the Senate, about it working again, about working together, and about how this bill was so poor for the American people,” Schumer said.
The dramatic turn of events was a notable end to a day like so many others during the Senate Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, lurching in fits and starts before ultimately collapsing.
GOP leaders were pushing a so-called skinny repeal bill that they admitted was bad policy, but hoped could then be sent to a conference committee with a more sweeping House repeal plan. In essence, lawmakers were being asked to vote for something few wanted to actually become law.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the skinny bill, if implemented, would leave 16 million more Americans uninsured and cause insurance premiums to spike.
McCain was among four GOP lawmakers who demanded that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) guarantee that the House would not simply pass the skinny bill and send it to President Trump for his signature. Ryan offered a muted promise, but it did not satisfy McCain.
Usually happy to spar with reporters, McCain ducked into an elevator ahead of the vote without saying a word about which way he was leaning. After the animated conversation with Pence, McCain disappeared to the cloak room for what others assumed was a call from the White House.
Senators wore long faces as votes were cast in favor, some almost sheepishly. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, perhaps the most endangered Republican up for reelection next year, barely rose from his desk, the last Republican to vote “yes.”
“This is clearly a disappointing moment,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the vote was over, his voice wavering. “We worked really hard.”
But that moment also was telling, as McConnell turned his back to Democrats and addressed his party’s senators.
The body language did not go unnoticed, especially because the Republican majority may not be able to pass a healthcare overhaul or other big legislation, such as tax reform, without bipartisan cooperation.
Then Schumer gave his own speech, offering to turn the page — not just on this issue but on the others that have become stuck in the partisan morass.
Some senators stuck around afterward to share in the moment, crossing the aisle the way McCain did to chat with one another.
“There’s a mood right now in the Senate — from McCain’s comments the other day to Schumer’s comments tonight — there’s a growing sense, ‘Let’s get this done,’” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “This is what democracy is. It’s messy.”
The chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), huddled with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, talking about the panel’s next steps, senators said.
“Now the hard work begins,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who lingered afterward to talk with several Republican colleagues.
Skepticism, though, ran deep, especially among those who have seen this before. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) had tried unsuccessfully to win Democratic support of a healthcare bill he drafted with Collins.
“You’d like to say bipartisanship, but I keep coming back to the fact that Cassidy-Collins was written to invite bipartisanship and it was rejected by every single person on their side,” he said as he left the Capitol.
“Maybe this is what had to happen for there to be bipartisanship. ... So we’ll see.”
But an objection was shouted from the back row. It came not from the other side of the aisle, but from Rand Paul, Kentucky’s other Republican senator, a reminder that despite the overtures toward bipartisanship, sometimes the biggest challenges have come from within the GOP.
McCain swiveled to shoot a look at Paul, another longtime sparring partner. Paul’s objection meant unexpected hurdles that delayed consideration later Friday of the typically bipartisan bill that McCain, facing cancer treatment, will not be able to stick around to help pass. He starts radiation and chemotherapy back in Arizona on Monday.
But for now, he had done what he could do. McCain brushed past reporters in the halls and the crowd of activists singing in celebration outside the Capitol.
For now, he was heading home.
12 p.m.: This article was updated with McCain’s statement about starting cancer treatment.
11:27 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background and reaction.
This article was originally published at 4:50 a.m.