WASHINGTON • Mr John McCain was greeted by applause from both sides of the aisle as he walked onto the Senate floor, delivering Republicans the critical 50th vote to begin debate on an unknown plan to overhaul the US healthcare industry.
Then the senator from Arizona, done with the niceties, delivered a 15-minute excoriation of the modern Senate. A Senate riven by partisan infighting and almost no effort to work across the aisle.
A Senate so broken that the only way to even begin a healthcare debate was to drag an 80-year-old man, diagnosed last week with brain cancer, across the nation to cast that critical vote.
"Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order. We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle," Mr McCain told his colleagues on Tuesday, after they gave him the floor for an unusual address usually reserved for a retiring senator.
"We're getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done," he said.
His mere presence gave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell his biggest victory since the April confirmation of Mr Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice, allowing debate on a still unformed legislative package designed to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order. We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, in a plea for bipartisanship.
While Mr McCain cast blame far and wide for the Senate's shrunken status, he left no hint of subtlety in singling out the GOP leader's secretive, zigzagging effort to draft the healthcare Bill. "All we've managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn't very popular when we started trying to get rid of it," he said, noting rising support for the 2010 ACA.
"I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for this Bill as it is today. It's a shell of a Bill right now."
Despite this warning, Mr McCain's vote helped enable the broken process on healthcare he came to the floor to decry. It allows Mr McConnell to continue circumventing the committee work and bipartisan negotiations Mr McCain said represents the best of the Senate. A "no" vote would have forced leaders back to the drawing board, possibly into a bipartisan negotiation, but now they will barrel ahead, possibly for weeks or months, on the Republican-only effort.
He spoke for more than 225 years of Senate history, trying to force his colleagues to break free of this era's political spell. Almost every senator sat still, hanging on his every word. But whether his words will have any lasting impact remains to be seen. When Mr McCain concluded, Vice-President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote and both sides marched out to partisan news conferences blaming one another for the gridlock in Washington.
Mr McCain now finds himself among the last of a generation in the Senate. He is venerated across the nation for surviving 51/2 years of captivity and torture during the Vietnam War. But he is worshipped inside the Senate for the latter half of his 30 years here, when he took on the role of bipartisan elder statesman.