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Health care vote lays bare the divide between McCain and McConnell

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) walks out after speaking to reporters at a news conference on health care at the Capitol in Washington, July 27, 2017. McCain is among four Republican senators who declared Thursday that they would not vote for a slimmed-down partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act without guarantees that the House will negotiate a comprehensive measure. At left: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Gabriella Demczuk / The New York Times1 / 2
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks with members of his staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 20, 2017. After seven months of deliberation, Republicans have reached the moment when they have to vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, but they have yet to be told precisely what they will be voting on. Tom Brenner / The New York Times 2 / 2

WASHINGTON - Mitch McConnell and John McCain have a core fundamental difference in their approach to politics.

The Kentucky Republican counts success almost entirely through political victories, wins and losses best measured by the elections every two years. The Arizona Republican measures success in the worthiness of the fight - a determination that is sometimes influenced by his predilection for playing the "maverick" and the attention that brings.

Never has that disparity, in more than three decades together in the Senate, been on display quite like the past few days. On Tuesday, McCain was a conservative hero, scorned by liberals as a hypocrite. By early Friday morning he was back in liberals' good graces, the subject of some grumbling from Republicans and on the receiving end of a pointed tweet from President Donald Trump, who earlier in the week called him a "Brave - American hero!"

His decisive vote, after 1 a.m. Friday, to oppose McConnell, Trump and the overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans on the effort to revamp the Affordable Care Act will help define his career. It was an encapsulation, in less than 60 hours, of how often he goes from friend to foe.

First, after getting diagnosed last week with an aggressive form of brain cancer, McCain flew back to Washington Tuesday to cast a crucial vote allowing Senate Republicans to begin considering their bill. McConnell grew emotional as McCain delivered a 15-minute oratory about returning the chamber to its glory - a world where in his view committees, not party leaders, craft bills and bipartisanship is the norm.

By 1 a.m. Friday that warmth toward McCain turned into fury as he joined two other Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, in denying McConnell his last-ditch effort to keep alive the effort to repeal Obamacare.

"It's time to move on," McConnell said after the bill's stinging defeat.

It was the most humiliating legislative defeat of McConnell's more than 32 years in the Senate, all the more so because he had shrunk his ambition to a narrow bill that was only meant to serve as a vehicle to open a new round of negotiations with House Republicans.

McCain had issued a pretty clear warning, during his Tuesday speech, that he wasn't much interested in just chalking up a win for Republicans.

"Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy," McCain told his colleagues, not even two weeks removed from the surgery above his left eye that revealed the brain tumor.

A few minutes later, he urged them to join him in rejecting that approach, urging more across-the-aisle give and take. "It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than 'winning,'" he said. "Even when we must give a little to get a little."

This is the single biggest divide between McConnell, 75, and McCain, 80.

McConnell is a proud political pugilist whose very essence is defined by how many wins Republicans chalk up. Every decision in the 10 1/2 years since he became GOP leader has been crafted toward trying to capture and then maintain the Senate majority.

His mantra the past few weeks was that Republicans had to pass a rewrite of the 2010 health law because they had told their conservative base of voters that they would ever since Democrats passed it on a party-line vote. Failure would be a political disaster and lead to deep Republican losses in elections ahead.

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But McCain's persona is linked to his expressions of dignity in defeat, willingness to break with his party and eagerness to be seen as above the raw politics of the moment.

As a naval fighter pilot, he was shot down in Vietnam, tortured and held captive for more than five years. The son of an admiral overseeing the Pacific fleet, he was offered - and turned down - early release ahead of his fellow POWs. En route to a large defeat in the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain rejected the venom some supporters felt toward his opponent, Barack Obama, calling the future president a "good man."

But as much as he receives praise for taking principled stands, McCain also draws the ire of critics who see an inconsistency too when he evokes these principles and allows personal animous or a craving for the spotlight to at times govern those decisions.

Before casting his vote early Friday, McCain seemed to be enjoying, at least a bit, that his vote would upend his party's plans.

"Wait for the show," he told reporters asking how he would vote as he headed toward the floor, building up some drama for what was about to unfold.

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The complicated relationship between McCain and McConnell stretches back long before the current health care debate.

McCain's biggest legislative success, aside from national security matters, came in 2002 on a campaign finance law that restricted big donations that national political parties could collect. His protagonist throughout that fight was McConnell, who argued that Republicans needed those six- and seven-figure checks to defeat Democrats and their labor union allies.

McConnell then helped lead the legal battles that would gut those campaign laws.

In recent years McConnell has relied often on McCain's counsel, not just on national security but also on key institutional rules disputes. They both pride themselves on being protectors of the Senate's unique procedures that compel bipartisan work, and a few years back McCain served as one of McConnell's emissaries in disputes with Democrats.

But their bond frayed again over the last several weeks, as the two elder statesmen clashed over the process that culminated Friday morning. After the House passed its unpopular health-care legislation, McConnell tried to find a better, broader version that could get 51 votes just from Republicans because he knew Democrats had no interest in working on a bill to repeal Obama's landmark domestic policy achievement as president.

None of his ideas came close to succeeding so he came up with a final idea: Just pass a bill with a few of the more popular concepts, so a new round of negotiation with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., could commence.

The idea was simple: Winning.

To have a chance at winning, Republicans had to pass a bill that left intact much of Obamacare and did little to address key concerns from McCain and many Republicans.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain's closest friend, called the proposal "a disaster" and "a fraud" and "horrible politics".

"I have nothing to add," McCain chimed in at a Thursday evening news conference.

Once Ryan gave assurances that a new negotiation would take place and that he would not quickly pass the Senate bill, McConnell counted 49 Republican votes.

Murkowksi and Collins were already publicly opposed. Only McCain remained undecided.

He will soon return to Phoenix to begin treatment options for his cancer, possibly chemotherapy that will be so debilitating no one is sure when he will return to the Senate.

As the final votes started, shortly after midnight, McCain stood in the Senate talking to colleagues trying to win his vote. He talked to Vice President Mike Pence, who was there to cast the tiebreaking vote if McCain came on board. He took phone calls, including one from Trump.

But McCain was done with winning for the sake of winning.

He said as much during his speech Tuesday, telling his 99 colleagues it was time for compromise.

"It doesn't feel like a political triumph," McCain said. "But it's usually the most we can expect from our system of government."

This article was written by Paul Kane of The Washington Post.

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