McCain Continually Crossed the Aisle

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Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and a bipartisan group from the Senate Armed Services Committee at a press conference in 2015. To the left of McCain is the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island). Photo by Jeff Malet.

From the Senate Press Gallery, located directly over the Senate leaders’ desks on the third floor of the Senate Chamber, one thing becomes the focus of all reporters. It’s not the actions of the presiding chair (whom we can’t even see), nor the details about what’s being said by the senator currently giving a speech.

No, the main reason congressional reporters are leaning on the gallery desks and staring into the chamber below, pen and notepad at the ready — no electronic recording devices are allowed — is to watch the dynamics between the senators on the floor, the action C-SPAN doesn’t cover.

In particular, reporters are there to report on who crosses the center aisle separating the Democrats and the Republicans.

The friendly crossings happen less and less in the increasingly partisan Senate. But the aisle crossers are the ones who seemingly are more congenial, more open to listening to other points of view and to negotiating. They are the ones who are seeking compromise.

Of all the senators who crossed the aisle in the past ten years, the late John McCain (R-Arizona) did it the most. He was known as “the maverick.”

His particular friend on the Democratic side for decades was Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), the liberal “Lion of the Senate.” “My dad loved John McCain despite their political differences,” said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), son of the late senator.

“Although they disagreed, they were always searching for ways to put their country ahead of their party,” said Kennedy. “It sounds trite, but … we really need people to have that as their goal.”

McCain and Ted Kennedy notably worked together on a comprehensive immigration bill with President George W. Bush in 2007. “Arizona is a border state and the bodies were piling up. That makes it our problem,” McCain’s State Director Paul Hickman recalled. The bill contained a provision to legalize almost all of the some 15 million immigrants living and working illegally in the country at the time. But the bill failed to pass — twice.

Days later, McCain, who was running for president, would announce that he now only would support the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants after enforcement measures had been well established. He called it “enforcement first.” Democrats claim to this day that he “flip-flopped” from “comprehensive” to “enforcement only.” McCain called it being practical.

Ted Kennedy died of glioblastoma, the same type of brain cancer that afflicted McCain, on Aug. 25, 2009. McCain died on the same day this year, exactly nine years later. Some might say that the maverick McCain was the John Adams to Kennedy’s patrician Thomas Jefferson — Founding Fathers and friends who disagreed and died on the same day, July 4, in 1826.

After Kennedy’s death, there was a brief movement by Democrats to rename the Russell Senate Office Building for Kennedy. Now there is a similar movement — perhaps successful this time — to rename the building for McCain.

John McCain will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda starting at 11 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 31. Speakers will include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Vice President Mike Pence. The public may pay their respects between 1 and 8 p.m. No flowers, sealed envelopes or other offerings or tokens will be allowed into the Capitol or the visitor center, according to the U.S. Capitol Police.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, a public procession from the U.S. Capitol to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will begin at 8:30 a.m., before the motorcade goes to Washington National Cathedral. Cindy McCain, the senator’s widow, will lay a ceremonial wreath to honor those who died during the Vietnam War. The public may line up along the procession route on Constitution Avenue.

At 10 a.m., at the memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will speak, along with former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). Announced pallbearers include actor Warren Beatty, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

On Sunday, the motorcade is scheduled to arrive at 1:45 p.m. at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. A private ceremony will follow at 2 p.m. The senator will be buried on a grassy hill in the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.

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