Vice President Mike Pence hurtled toward the Senate in his motorcade, the Republicans’ health-care legislation hung in the balance, and – well, where was John McCain?
Journalists had fanned out around the Capitol, searching for the Arizona senator, a man they believed controlled the fate of the so-called “skinny repeal” bill. The fact that Papa John’s pizza had been delivered to his Russell building office was a good sign he was in there somewhere, but the cleaning crew that kept popping in and out was a sign that maybe he wasn’t.
The clock struck midnight, and out he came. The hero or the villain, depending on which side you were on, and neither side knew which yet.
“It’s very hard to do the right thing,” he said into a bright red phone pressed to his ear. Was he talking about health care to the person on the other end? (Assuming there was someone on the other end.)
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The Republican senator, never one to shy away from the spotlight, wasn’t about to reveal his big twist to the journalists trailing behind him. Not yet.
“Wait for the show,” he said.
Before the theatrics began early Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sneaked off to his hideaway office off the floor of the Senate. With its vaulted ceilings, plush furniture and an unbeatable view of the Washington Monument, this was a place of respite for the longest-serving senator, a quiet escape he liked to share with his colleagues on late nights like these.
“This late, I don’t think we’ll be serving cocktails,” the Vermont Democrat said as he sat in a cream-colored armchair. “Well, they can have them if they’d like.”
He got up to head out the door. It was just after 9 p.m.
“I’m going to walk back to the floor and try and figure out what the hell is going on,” he said.
What the hell was going on? Republicans finished writing something called a “skinny repeal” health-care bill over lunch Thursday and were trying to use it to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act late at night. Would it pass? What would happen if it did? And what on earth is a vote-o-rama? (Answer courtesy of Sen. Claire McCaskill: “A vote-o-rama is really weird,” the Missouri Democrat said. “And dumb.” Thanks, senator.)
The only thing people wandering the halls of Congress seemed to agree on was that bedtime was nowhere in sight.
“It’s going to go late,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters as he went to eat Chipotle with his colleagues in a Senate conference room. “Late, late, late, late.”
“I don’t think that it will go several nights,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who hopped off the Senate’s underground tram sporting a five o’clock shadow that he dubbed a “protest beard.”
Time had taken on an elastic quality. It was going to be an endless night, and yet there wasn’t nearly enough time to debate a bill of this magnitude. A day earlier, after the similarly nail-biting “motion to proceed” vote, a 20-hour clock had been set to count down the hours of debate required before a vote on repeal, and 30 hours later, due to various procedural stoppages, it was still running.
“My days kind of blend together these days,” Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said on the Senate floor, “with this health care that we’re working on.”
Leahy might have been ambivalent about late-night cocktails, but a bottle of Jim Beam had mysteriously appeared atop the microwave in the press gallery.
“Break in case of an emergency,” a harried scribe said as he scurried by. Which emergency would that be? Would it be the “emergency” news conference that Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had called to express their distaste with their own party’s bill (words used by Graham: “half-assed,” “dumbest thing in history” and “disaster”)? Or would it be the “emergency” meeting Democrats had called to discuss their options?
“They just ordered Chinese food,” a punch-drunk Democratic aide reported. “Emergency Chinese food.”
Cots went wheeling through Senate hallways. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., headed off to smoke a cigar from his office balcony. McCaskill snacked on an ice cream Choco Taco.
At 10:08 p.m., the show kicked off with a boom.
“This is nuclear-grade bonkers,” Murphy shouted into a Senate chamber. Nearby, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., used his pinky to pick emergency Chinese food from his teeth. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., scowled as he read a pile of papers, and Enzi poked a stubby finger at his smartphone. For all of Murphy’s sense of drama, nobody was really listening in the chamber, but nobody ever does.
The clock was sputtering toward midnight when Enzi took the floor, digressing like your uncle after a scotch. He talked about infant mortality rates, about Ted Kennedy, about health savings accounts, about Segways, about “the inventiveness of the American people.”
Democrat after Democrat tried to get Enzi to yield for a question about the bill. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tried. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., tried.
“I expect to have this hour,” Enzi said, deflecting each entreaty, “even if some of it is in silence.”
“Mr. President, will the speaker yield for a question about the very interesting points he’s making?” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., ventured at 11:42 p.m., addressing the presiding officer, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
“I will not,” Enzi said. “I will not.”
As Enzi spoke, Pence hurried to the Capitol in his motorcade, prepared to cast a tie-breaking vote if need be. “Shameshameshame” trended on Twitter. And the occasionally unpredictable McCain made the move from his office, with the promise of a “show.”
It was the most boring exciting show on earth; high drama and low voices. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, moderates who would be crucial in sinking the bill, surrounded McCain at his Senate desk and spoke with him in hushed tones. McCain smiled, or twitched. He gave a thumbs down – Twitter convulsed: He gave a thumbs down! – but in response to what? It was like the senior class all-night lock-in dance at your high school, but with senior citizens.
Pence came over, and the two traded jokes that were either funny or awkward. McCain shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, put his hand atop the veep’s. Time stood still, but all of a sudden it was 1 a.m.
Dozens of journalists craned their necks and cupped their ears from the gallery, but McCain spoke just out of earshot. Having misread every tea leaf of the past year and bungled every prediction, no one in the press corps wanted to guess what it all meant. But then at 1:10 a.m., McCain walked over to talk with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. A gaggle of Democrats surrounded the pale Republican, the man who had just returned to the Capitol after a brain tumor diagnosis, and who had done so to cast that “motion-to-proceed” vote that got everyone to this point.
He had disappointed Democrats a day earlier, but it was clear that whatever he was telling them now – body language analysis! – was different. He leaned over and hugged Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the Democrats, for the first time in a long time, looked happy.
And so, McCain cast the vote that killed the latest attempt to repeal Obamacare. The audience of tourists, staffers and journalists gasped. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went pink in the face. What the hell happened?
The bill died at 1:29 a.m. Friday. It was a late night in America, but not that late.