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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 6:14 am | Fair 46º


Jamie Stiehm: Rising from Surgery, John McCain Speaks on What Ails the Senate

The warhorse entered the Senate, stage right.

Sen. John McCain looked, in his words, “a little worse for wear.” His eye was badly bruised. Still pretty good for a man of 80 just diagnosed and treated for brain cancer across the country, in Arizona.

Then the Republican, after casting a vote on health care, gave the speech of his life. It mesmerized colleagues and stilled the troubled churn of the Senate.

Trust me, it’s rare for one senator to hold the floor and gaze of all 99 colleagues. The standing ovation, with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., leading Democrats, was something to see. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined in.

There are many John McCains. I’ve seen several.

At his worst, he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for a running mate in 2008 in a reckless move. At better moments, he’s the dynamo who survived as a prisoner of war for five years in the Hanoi Hilton. He has a tremendous brio, fighting spirit and light in his eyes.

The simple, truest thing he said: “Let’s trust each other.”

Clearly, McCain came back chastened by the bitter partisan stalemate, the Senate at its broken worst. As if he had an epiphany facing life and death on his hospital bed, he declared the Senate was in the deepest rut he remembered in 30 years.

He evoked former giants on the floor. He wistfully said what it was to cooperate and compromise, “even when we must give a little to get a little.”

He criticized the Senate gently, but pointedly, saying their work was not “overburdened by greatness lately. And right now, (we) aren’t producing much for the American people. ... (historians) they’ll find we all conspired in our decline.”

“We are getting nothing done, my friends,” he added.

Based on a “refreshed appreciation” for arcane Senate rules and customs, McCain urged a return to “regular order.” This was a dig at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who patched together a ragged repeal of Obamacare in a secret jury-like process with 12 senators, outside the regular order of holding open hearings with both parties in the room.

McConnell turned scarlet in his seat. No Republican dares voice dissent from the Senate sheriff. Unless he has little to lose.

Then came the bombshell.

“I will not vote for this bill as it is today,” McCain said.

Will this short sentence stop the McConnell express in repealing Obamacare — or even a “skinny” repeal? That’s not clear.

Then again, McCain’s heartfelt diagnosis of what ails the Senate may have emboldened some Republicans to step out of line. As they vote on amendments late into the night, look for a McCain effect.

I’ve always felt McCain's manic energy made up for his lost years as a POW. As a Hill reporter, we had lunch, the senator, his press secretary and me. In the Senate dining room, McCain cheerfully tapped out Morse code on the table to show how he communicated with fellow Americans. A naval pilot whose father and grandfather were admirals, he could have been released sooner. But he refused favorable treatment.

When he heard that a writer he knew had done me wrong, McCain playfully put his fist in the air. Years later, this light moment endures. His temper broke dark at times and he spoke to that: “Sometimes I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said.”

The best version of McCain was working with liberal Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to co-author a campaign finance bill that passed into law. The U.S. Supreme Court later struck part of it down.

When senators came, one by one, to embrace the Senate warhorse, I saw some he had scrapped with. Let bygones be bygones, it’s an honor to serve with you. Vice President Mike Pence joined the throng.

McCain’s vision of America sounded like a self-portrait: “this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country.”

A fare-thee-well for the ages, except for this. McCain could have voted against proceeding on the bill when he entered, ending McConnell’s shabby piece of work, as did 50 senators.

Then his words would have been worth more.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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