The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The iconic thumbs-down vote that summed up John McCain’s career

On July 28, 2017, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cast a vote on the floor of the Senate against repealing the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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This post has been updated.

In the early hours of July 28, 2017, Sen. John McCain slowly walked onto the floor of the Senate. The chamber was tense; two other Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine), had already announced that they would vote against the GOP’s “skinny repeal” bill — a measure that would have permanently repealed the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, among other provisions.

As McCain’s turn to vote arrived, the Senate clerk nodded at him. The Arizona Republican paused, then gave a dramatic thumbs down, eliciting gasps from the Democratic side of the chamber and grim looks of resignation from the GOP leadership that had spent the past few hours trying to get him to change his mind.

The vote left the GOP plan to repeal Obamacare in tatters. And yet, for a senator who ran for president as a “maverick” candidate who wouldn’t be bound by party-line votes or political pressure, it seemed fitting. And the visual of McCain’s thumbs-down moment will linger as one that defined him — and was perhaps his last major legislative impact, coming just weeks after his devastating glioblastoma diagnosis.

The Fix compiled a short oral history of that moment, which we’re republishing in the wake of McCain’s death this Saturday, based on interviews with McCain’s Senate colleagues. Watch them describe the night in the video above.

ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.): You remember what was at stake. This was about rolling health care back for millions and millions and millions of people. And we were a 48-52 Senate at that moment. The bill had already passed the House. And we all knew if it got even to 50-50, people were going to lose health care around this country, because the vice president would break the tie and roll back this health care.

And so Susan Collins had already committed. Lisa Murkowski had already committed.

SUSAN COLLINS: Lisa Murkowski, who was the third Republican, and I had gone over to talk with John. He had just gotten back. He had found out that he had this devastating diagnosis, and he had been listening to the arguments that we had been making that past week.

CHARLES E. SCHUMER (D-N.Y.): I spent a lot of time talking to John McCain in the days leading up to that. We were very close.

WARREN: And we’re all on the floor that night for the vote, including the vice president, who’s wandering around and trying to make sure that all the folks are staying in line on the Republican side.

COLLINS: And we were talking about it and what he was going to do. And all of a sudden he pointed to both of us and he said, “You two are right.” And it was then that I knew he was going to vote no.

MITCH MCCONNELL (R-Ky.): He’s pretty much a contrarian in a lot of ways. I mean this is a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and who has a temper.

WARREN: I was standing at the desk — I just couldn’t sit down. I was too anxious and watching the votes.

And so we had all the Democrats — that’s 48 Susan Collins voted no. That gave us 49. Lisa Murkowski voted no. That gave us 50. Those were all the known commitments.

COLLINS: There was a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around and it was Vice President Pence, who clearly had been sent over to lobby John and to try to get him back into line, if you will.

WARREN: You’re looking around: Is there anybody else who might vote to save health care for all of these families? Where’s John McCain? And he’s not there.

COLLINS: So I excused myself so that they could have their conversation. Shortly after that, the president called him, and John went into the cloakroom to take that call before the vote occurred. It was a very dramatic moment on the Senate floor.

WARREN: And he rounds the corner, and I remember standing there watching, and he comes around that corner. No fuss, no muss, waiting for his name again.

COLLINS: And you could actually hear some gasps in the chamber when he did so.

SCHUMER: And I knew what would happen. John McCain again would do what he thought was the right thing no matter what the pressure.

COLLINS: To me, that is one of the things that I so admire about John. He does what he thinks is right, and that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. We’ve had our tussles over the years and disagreement.

MCCONNELL: You know, John was never one not to have an opinion and sometimes expressed it very forcefully.

WARREN: It is hard, but he got that fight down to a core level.

SCHUMER: That thumbs down could sum up his entire career. He did what he knew was right. And more often than not, he was way ahead of the curve.