When lawmakers began shuffling into the Senate chamber for a midnight vote — a mostly symbolic Democratic motion, which would precede the night’s main vote on the GOP Obamacare repeal legislation — Republicans showed few signs that the effort they sunk months into wrangling was about to go down.
Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) was all smiles leaning on a wall at the back of the chamber, watching other lawmakers trickle in. The other Republicans didn’t look ecstatic about the hours-long series of show votes they believed they were about to be subjected to, but appeared content to take a step forward on the fractious health care debate that had divided their caucus.
Then Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) walked into the room.
McCain, who had made a dramatic return to Washington earlier this week after undergoing surgery and being diagnosed with brain cancer, was among a group of Republicans skeptical of leadership’s plans to put forward a hastily assembled “skinny repeal” bill that would send the issue to a conference with the House — particularly after an ambiguous public statement by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) that made no clear guarantee that it would never actually become law.
Just a few days prior, McCain had assailed his fellow lawmakers for operating outside long-held Senate norms, and at a last-minute evening press conference Thursday, joined a handful of other Republicans to raise concerns about trusting the House not to just take up the legislation.
Those other GOP senators stepped in line after a phone call with Ryan, but McCain refused to tell reporters whether his concerns had been assuaged.
Walking into the chamber for the midnight votes, McCain told reporters inquiring how he’d vote on the repeal, “wait for the show.”
And a show it was. After making a few rounds in the chamber, McCain crossed over to the Democratic side to confer with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a conversation during which McCain gave Schumer a hug.
Schumer lit up like a Christmas tree.
McCain then approached Cornyn, who was near the well on the GOP side. Cornyn’s mood clearly dropped and never fully rebounded over the hour of uncertainty that would ensue.
It’s somewhat of a sport for reporters to crane over the balcony from which they can watch Senate floor proceedings, trying to guess what every conversation and gesture means without the ability to actually hear the lawmakers. It’s easy to overanalyze an expressive discussion among members; they could easily be talking about last weekend’s golf game.
Nonetheless, when McCain began making the rounds, reporters rushed back to into the press gallery where their phones awaited to fire off tweets and messages to their editors: something is up.
The next tell came as Schumer made a floor speech ahead of the first vote calling for the skinny repeal bill to be killed. McCain appeared to be nodding in agreement.
As more Republicans came in the chamber, the word appeared to spread. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), McCain’s closest ally on the Hill, plopped down next to the Arizona senator and didn’t look happy. Graham had joined McCain at the evening press conference questioning the skinny bill plan — even calling the legislation a “fraud” —but had come out in support of it anyway after his conversation with Ryan.
At one point, Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-AK), a likely no vote on the bill, entered the chamber and McCain flashed her a “no vote” thumbs down with a smile. One reporter spotted McCain saying something to her that appeared to be “I promise” as she stood over him in a long conversation.
The biggest sign that things were not going Republicans’ way was that the show vote on Democrats’ motion to send the bill back to committee was being held open for way longer than usual. Senate staffers claimed they were dealing with a procedural issue in the repeal bill, but it was apparent that some attempts at arm-twisting were underway.
Vice President Mike Pence, on hand to break a potential tie on the main vote, was by now in the chamber consulting with the GOP leadership.
The junior senator from Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), swapped in for the seat to the left of McCain, while Murkoski hovered over him to his right. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), another presumed “no” vote, soon joined them. Flake politely waited to jump in the three other Republicans’ conversation, but his smile looked pained.
Eventually, Pence approached the huddle, shook McCain’s hand and hugged the female senators. He took turns chatting with all three, but as the clock continued to tick his efforts always turned back to McCain.
Murkowski, meanwhile, was flanked by some GOP leadership members and her fellow Alaskan senator, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) — their moods all dour.
The Dems watched intently from the other side of the chamber, not fully sure what to make of how the Republicans were muddling along. The suspense was lifted when McCain ambled back over to their side of the well to chat with a few of their top members. At least a dozen Democrats gathered around them, growing more excited as he continued to talk. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) gave him a big hug. Someone may have pointed out the reporters in the balcony above trying to read their conversation, because McCain threw up his hands and dropped a joking, over-articulated f-bomb, prompting laughter both among the reporters and the Democrats.
He sauntered back to the Republicans — stopping to greet and hug Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the most senior GOP lawmaker in the Senate on the way — before engaging in another conversation with Pence, who had by now left and re-entered the chamber multiple times.
About an hour after the first vote had been opened, McCain himself left the chamber, with reporters guessing he was going to the cloakroom to take a phone call.
The first vote was gaveled out soon after McCain left and roll call was started on the second one, the much anticipated vote on the repeal bill. Collins and Murkowksi both lodged their expected no votes, but McCain was not yet back in the chamber when his name was first called. He returned just as they were getting through the P’s, caught the attention of the staffers working the well, and gave his thumbs down.
Audible gasps and a few claps rang out, as McCain stepped away from the well, not making much of a show as he lumbered back to his seat.