Diagnosed with a brain tumor last week, John McCain returned to the Senate on Tuesday with his perspective on his life and service there sharpened by that confrontation with his own mortality. He delivered an extraordinary, eloquent speech, almost certainly the best of his long public career, even as he cast a vote betraying the principles at the heart of his message.
By joining 49 other Republican senators in voting to open floor debate on health care legislation he acknowledged is merely “a shell of a bill,” McCain gave his seal of approval to a process he declared probably won’t work and probably shouldn’t. His vote moves the Senate further from the deliberative tradition he celebrated in his remarks, with committee hearings and honest give-and-take between Republicans and Democrats; the coming debate is more likely to deepen the partisanship that divides his colleagues and the country than to lessen it.
While McCain admitted to flaws as a senator, his self-deprecation didn’t extend to an acknowledgement of the contradiction between his vote and his speech. One hopes that will come later. And in any event, the message remains powerful, well worth the attention of every American concerned about the growing dysfunction of our government and the growing tribalism of our politics. If you haven’t seen the speech – it lasts just over 15 minutes -- you can watch it here and/or check out the excerpts below the video.
“Our deliberations today – not just our debates, but the exercise of all our responsibilities – authorizing government policies, appropriating the funds to implement them, exercising our advice and consent role – are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren’t producing much for the American people.
“Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood…
“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. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.
“We’re getting nothing done. All we’ve really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.”
“Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act. If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let’s return to regular order.
“Let the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee under Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides. Then bring it to the floor for amendment and debate, and see if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today.
“What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart.”
“The work we do is important. Our strange rules and seemingly eccentric practices that slow our proceedings and insist on our cooperation are important. Our founders envisioned the Senate as the more deliberative, careful body that operates at a greater distance than the other body from the public passions of the hour.
“We are an important check on the powers of the Executive. Our consent is necessary for the President to appoint jurists and powerful government officials and in many respects to conduct foreign policy. Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equal!”
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: More Democracy Reforms