How John McCain Became Washington's Most Indispensable Senator


Yes, he is one of the most hawkish members of Congress, for better or worse. Yes, there are reasonable concerns about how well he relates to millennial values and priorities at 76 years of age. And yes, in an act of near unforgivable political sin, he inflicted Sarah Palin upon the nation in 2008. But Governor Palin has long since faded from political relevance and it's time to forgive. In the twilight of his own political career, John McCain has become the nation's indispensable senator.

Since his successful fight for reelection in 2010, Senator McCain has been a rare voice of reason and candor in a highly partisan Washington, D.C. In July 2012, for example, he took to the Senate floor to defend Huma Abedin from spurious accusations by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and others that she is part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to undermine the U.S. government, nipping a 21st-century iteration of McCarthyism in the bud. In an impassioned speech, the senator described the insinuations against Abdein — a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton — as having "no logic, no basis, and no merit" and observed that she "represents what is best about America: the daughter of immigrants, who has risen to the highest levels of our government on the basis of her substantial personal merit and her abiding commitment to the American ideals that she embodies so fully." In the summer of 2012, McCain also spoke for many Americans in labeling the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on political independent expenditures as "uninformed, arrogant, naive." And just last week, he defended President Obama's speech on the Trayvon Martin case, even as it received a flurry of attacks from the right.

To be sure, Senator McCain has been a strong critic of the Obama administration, especially on national security issues like the Benghazi attack and military intervention in Syria. Yet he has epitomized what it means to be a member of the loyal opposition. For example, McCain was highly critical of the president's decision earlier this year to nominate Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and ultimately voted against his confirmation. But he voted to invoke cloture on the nomination debate nonetheless and thus helped clear the way for Hagel to receive an up-or-down vote in the first place.

Senator McCain has been productive in other ways as well. Ryan Lizza observes in The New Yorker: "This year...he has been talking privately with Obama about a new 'grand bargain' on the budget, and he recently agreed to help the president move toward closing the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. He has been publicly criticizing Tea Party senators such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who he believes have been disrespectful to the Senate’s traditions. And he has become the champion of legislative progress at a time when there is reason to doubt that it is possible."

The most obvious example of McCain's growing influence as a "champion of legislative progress" came last week, when he bypassed the formal Senate Republican leadership to broker a filibuster agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Under the terms of the agreement, Senator Reid pulled back from making unilateral changes to filibuster rules and President Obama was compelled to withdraw two controversial nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. In exchange, a bloc of Republican senators led by McCain agreed to allow votes on several other long-stalled executive appointments. Although other senators had been involved in negotiations, Reid credited McCain for the agreement: "No one was able to break through but for him."

Of course, the Senate's filibuster rules are themselves controversial. PolicyMic's Gabriel Grand, for example, argues that the filibuster contributes to Senate dysfunction. Yet last week's agreement did not mark Senator McCain's first time working to preserve the filibuster. He brokered similar deals in 2005 as part of the so-called Gang of 14 and helped forestall the burgeoning filibuster reform movement after the influx of new senators elected in 2012. Why? As noted in the Lizza piece, McCain believes the filibuster helps distinguish the Senate from the more combative, chaotic House of Representatives and is thus motivated to show that the Senate can still pass significant legislation even given a super-majority prerequisite.

In fact, though pressure for filibuster reform may continue, there is no disputing that McCain has helped demonstrate that the Senate can not only function under existing rules, but function well. Look no further than his work on immigration reform – as the Republican leader of a bipartisan group of eight senators, he helped orchestrate the approval of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws by a 68-32 margin in the Senate last month. And as The New York Times notes, the filibuster deal brokered by McCain seems to have prompted "new stirrings of cooperation," with bipartisan Senate agreements on a press shield law and student loan legislation coincidentally announced just days afterwards. A big fiscal deal may be next, seeing as how McCain and other senators have been part of regular meetings with White House officials on the issue as of late.

Admittedly, McCain is no stranger to compromise, having previously worked to craft bipartisan agreements on campaign finance reform, immigration reform, and climate change. And he has also long prided himself on being a "straight talker." But Senator McCain's voice and leadership are arguably needed now more than ever. A gridlocked House is seemingly unable to move forward on important agenda items like comprehensive farm and immigration legislation, while a host of other policy issues also demand action. Furthermore, its 10% approval rating makes Congress less popular than Paris Hilton and the prospect of the country adopting communism, with strong, cross-party majorities citing inaction and partisan gridlock as the reason. A senator like John McCain — dealmaker, straight talker, and yes, a bit of a maverick — has never been more indispensable.