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McCain Delivers Key Health Care Vote — And Then Blasts The Process


Senator John McCain had surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor just 10 days ago. And today he made a dramatic return to the U.S. Senate to give Republicans and President Trump a much-needed yes vote in the latest attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It was an emotional moment as he entered the chamber where he has served since 1987. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Until today, Senator McCain had made no public appearances since his diagnosis. There was a photo on his official Twitter account showing him seated next to a creek while on a hike near Sedona, Ariz. But then came this afternoon. The vote on the motion to proceed with debate on the Republican health care bill was already underway when McCain walked into the Senate chamber.


GONYEA: He shook hands with leadership from both parties. Then, businesslike, McCain walked up to the clerk and recorded his yes vote on the motion.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. McCain. Mr. McCain, aye.

GONYEA: They certainly needed McCain's vote. The tally was 50-50 with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote. McCain was then given the floor.


JOHN MCCAIN: When I stand here today, looking a little worse for wear, I'm sure, I have a refreshed appreciation for the protocols and customs of this body.

GONYEA: McCain stood straight and steady at his desk and spoke clearly, reading his prepared remarks, but visible was a long scar over his left eye. McCain, a former Navy officer and pilot who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, then called his time in the Senate the most important job he's had in his life. He noted the traditional description of the Senate as the world's greatest deliberative body.


MCCAIN: I'm not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.

GONYEA: And he grimly described the tone of debates in recent years.


MCCAIN: They are more partisan, more tribal, more of the time than at any time that I can remember.

GONYEA: McCain said his vote today is only to allow debate on the health care bill. He stressed that he cannot support the bill as currently written. He criticized Democrats for passing Obamacare seven years ago with no Republican votes, but he says the Republicans are now trying to do the same thing. And he had this admonition.


MCCAIN: Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them.


MCCAIN: They don't want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.

GONYEA: President Trump this afternoon cited McCain's bravery for getting to Washington to cast this vote, and earlier today, Trump tweeted that McCain is an American hero, all of this almost exactly two years after candidate Trump ridiculed McCain's time as a prisoner of war by saying, quote, "I like people who weren't captured." Today, on the Senate floor, McCain asserted the Senate's power to be a check on the power of the president.


MCCAIN: Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president's subordinates. We are his equal.

GONYEA: McCain's remarks felt like a valedictory address. He said he'd be in town for a few days then will head back home to treat his illness. He closed with this.


MCCAIN: I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me. And I hope to impress on you again that it is an honor to serve the American people in your company. Thank you, fellow senators. Mr. President, I yield the floor.


GONYEA: Senator John McCain speaking in the Senate this afternoon. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.