The choice of words there, and the air quotes he put around it as he spoke, seemed like a rebuke of President Trump—but also of many in the Republican Party. (Two of his GOP colleagues, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted against proceeding on the bill, which is why his vote was decisive.) Despite seven years of promises, and despite controlling both houses of Congress, Republicans have spent the entirety of Trump’s term so far searching for a way, any way, to repeal Obamacare. That process has repeatedly broken down and then been repaired. In the case of Tuesday’s vote, senators had to be badgered into voting to consider a bill they hadn’t been provided a chance to read. It took bullying from the president and lobbying from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And, most prominently, it required McCain himself flying in just days after a brain-cancer diagnosis to provide the Republicans enough votes just to open debate.
It would be hard to think of a more desperate effort to win partisan gain at any cost, and yet here was McCain denouncing such efforts moments after enabling one.
“Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately,” McCain said. “And right now, they aren’t producing much for the American people.” He returned to the same theme moments later: “We're getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done. All we've really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Our health-care-insurance system is a mess.”
McCain isn’t wrong—everyone agrees the system is a mess. But the bills put forward do little or nothing to solve that. Every proposal so far considered would produce more than 20 million newly uninsured Americans. In a speech that seemed mostly aimed at chastising Republicans, McCain found room to blame Democrats for not joining in a compromise to fix the system, but it’s hard to see where the opposition party would fit in. Given that Republicans have so far emphasized repeal without any serious replacement, there’s no place for Democrats to compromise. McCain acknowledged that. “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.
That was part of a broader, strident critique of McConnell’s management of the health-care process.
“We try to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the Administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them that it's better than nothing,” he said. “That it's better than nothing? Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition—I don't think that's going to work in the end, and probably shouldn't.”
Indeed, McCain said that while he voted in favor of debate, he didn’t intend to vote for the proposal unless it changes drastically: “I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now. We all know that.” But he said he was voting to proceed on debate as a nod to the importance of traditional procedure.