SOUTH BEND – In a recent speech prior to Sen. John McCain’s death, Sen. Joe Donnelly described the drama in the chamber as McCain gave his famous thumbs down on the effort of Senate Republican leaders and President Trump to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Ironically, with ACA provisions now becoming more popular and health care a top issue in upcoming elections, McCain’s vote now can be seen as saving Republicans from even higher health costs during the Trump administration.

But most of the Senate Republicans, denouncing the ACA as “Obamacare” and wanting to be rid of it, didn’t at that time see anything positive about McCain’s negative vote.

Nor did the president. His anger over McCain’s vote simmered on, seen in his reluctance even to lower White House flags to half staff after McCain’s death.

The thumbs-down vote on repeal came in the early morning hours of July 28, 2017.

Donnelly and the 47 other senators on the Democratic side of the aisle were voting “no” on repeal.

It was seen as a risky vote by Donnelly, facing reelection in Indiana, a state Trump carried by 19 percentage points.

Now, however, Donnelly cites that vote as he campaigns, calling McCain “one of my personal heroes,” and contending that the ACA and its provision for insurance for people with pre-existing conditions should be strengthened, not abandoned.

Two Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, joined in opposing the so-called “skinny” repeal – not total repeal, but aimed at moving to eliminate all traces of Obamacare.

McCain, if he voted for repeal, would bring about a 50-50 tie that would enable Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tiebreaker. Pence was in the chamber, ready and expecting to cast that decisive vote for repeal.

But McCain, returning to the chamber after diagnosis of the brain cancer that eventually brought his death, wouldn’t say how he would vote. He was upset that the repeal bill was being brought to a vote without “regular order,” without hearings, without debate on what was actually in the measure and without opportunity to offer amendments.

Still, McCain had been no fan of Obamacare.

Donnelly, in telling of the drama in the Senate chamber, said that Pence was pounding hard on McCain, trying to convince him to go along.

News accounts tell of the vice president working on McCain for 30 minutes and arranging a call to McCain from the president.

Donnelly relayed that some colleagues were saying, as they waited, that they didn’t think McCain could withstand all the pressure.

Donnelly disagreed, reminding them: “He was a prisoner of war for five and a half years.”

Indeed, pressure from Pence wasn’t anything like that applied by the interrogators in North Vietnam, who pounded on McCain in more than just a verbal way.

Finally, McCain stood before the Senate chair and gave that dramatic thumbs down to kill the repeal.

Reports told of gasps as McCain did what so many on both sides thought he would not do. Well, was it really such a surprise vote by a long-proclaimed maverick so often following his own conscience rather than the wishes of his party?

McCain explained his vote this way: “I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote.”

He called for a return “to the correct way of legislating,” to go back to committee, “hold hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation’s governors and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people.”

John McCain was not blinded by the colors in the red vs. blue political war that threatens the nation’s health. 
 
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.