There's no question the biggest political accomplishment of Sen. Patrick Leahy's week in Washington was voting along with his senate colleagues to successfully defeat the Republican plan to change the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. But another event in Washington this week – Arizona Sen. John McCain’s return to Washington after a brain cancer diagnosis – also had a profound effect on Leahy.
A vote in the Senate in the early hours of Friday morning defeated the Republican “skinny bill” designed to reverse some of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act.
Leahy said the vote kept the Affordable Care Act intact and also took some of the uncertainty from the health insurance market.
“Those who have pre-existing conditions" will remain covered, Leahy said, adding that "there will be some stability in the markets. You've got a whole lot of insurance companies who have to make decisions now of where they'll be in January.”
After the dramatic early-morning vote, no one vote is getting more attention than that of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Leahy said he was expecting McCain's "no" vote, which put the Arizona Republican in step with Senate Democrats and just a few other Republicans.
“John and I have been friends from the time he was in the House,” Leahy said.
To Leahy, McCain's return to the Senate after being diagnosed with brain cancer was more than just an important vote - it was the return of an old friend who got bad news.
Leahy had tears in his eyes as he described the scene on the Senate floor early Friday morning.
“When he walked out - of course we were thrilled to see him," Leahy said. "Those of us who knew him saw how much weight he'd lost. And I mean he's a person, notwithstanding all the torture he had in Hanoi, he carries himself strongly. He was having a difficult time. I went over and I hugged him, and you could just feel the weight he had lost.”
McCain's vote shocked the Senate: one word and a simple thumbs-down gesture effectively ended the months-long effort in the Senate to repeal the ACA. But it was clear that watching John McCain cast that vote was not what made the biggest impression on Vermont's senior senator.
Leahy said he and McCain talked for a long time Thursday night, and the conversation got him reflecting on McCain and his career in the Senate and the military - and in some ways, reflecting on what it means to serve.
“The cancer that he's faced is hard,” Leahy said of McCain’s previous melanoma diagnosis. “Most people would not have lived through what he [did]- the torture in Hanoi. And he could have been released but he wouldn't leave his men behind.”
Talking about McCain, Leahy had a different tone than at press conferences during the height of this political fight, where he pounded a podium in frustration and blamed Senate Republicans for short-sighted political maneuvers.
“The speech he gave,” Leahy said, pausing to fight tears, “one of the most moving, memorable…” Leahy paused again, for more than 10 seconds, then said with a quivering voice: “but all I could think of was a farewell speech.”
McCain's speech on Tuesday was a blunt assessment of the Senate's performance.
“We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle,” McCain said, personally accepting some blame for that dynamic. “That's an approach that's been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires. We're getting nothing done my friends. We're getting nothing done.”
After a weekend in Vermont, Leahy says he hopes to return to Washington and work with Republicans to improve the U.S. health system without focusing on dismantling the Affordable Care Act.