JUDY WOODRUFF: As we heard, it was a dramatic and consequential return for John McCain to the Senate floor, his first public appearance since being diagnosed with brain cancer.
While his vote helped Republicans open up debate on health care, he laid out the difficult road ahead to replace the Affordable Care Act, and he called on his colleagues to change the tone and behavior of the Senate more broadly as well.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.
And, right now, they aren’t producing much for the American people. Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they will find we all conspired in our decline, either by deliberate actions or neglect.
We have all played some role in it. Certainly, I have. Sometimes, I have let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us.
Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: They don’t want anything done for the public good.
Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.
We have 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.
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.
And all we have really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Our health care insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done. We Republicans have looked for a way to end it and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price. We haven’t found it yet. And I’m not sure we will.
All we have managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator John McCain on the Senate floor today.
We asked more than 20 Republican senators to join us tonight. None accepted our invitation.
But we stay on Capitol Hill for a Democrat’s perspective. He is Senator Jon Tester of Montana. He has served in the Senate since 2007.
Senator, we’re very glad to have you join us.
What did you make of what John McCain had to say today?
SEN. JON TESTER, D-Mont.: Well, I think he was spot on.
John’s a statesman, and he certainly has respects from both sides of the aisle.
But this place is broken. And we do need to work across the aisle, and compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word. And we need to negotiate and we need to take everybody’s input and come up with the best possible legislation.
And that’s certainly not what happened with the health care bill that we have dealt with over the last seven months, the various ones that have come out. But the bottom line is this, Judy. This country was built by people working together. Washington, D.C., is far, far, far too partisan.
And we need to start working together. And I think John McCain is right on that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any sign that that’s going to happen? Is one senator’s speech on the floor going to make a difference?
SEN. JON TESTER: Well, no, I think it’s going to take more than that.
And I will just tell you that I am blessed to be able to work with a guy by the name of Johnny Isakson on the VA Committee. And together, a Republican and a Democrat, along with a really good committee, have been able to pump out some pretty good bills that the president has been able to sign.
And we have done that by communicating with one another, not embarrassing one another, but working for the best interests of our veterans.
And I think that if the Senate would take a look at the successes we have had over the last many years, it’s been by people communicating and working together and negotiating and compromising.
And I think we start to doing that more and more in the Senate. And there is no better place to start than with a bill that impacts one-sixth of our economy, this health care bill.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about that health care bill.
Now that Republicans have been able to get it on the floor, debate has begun. Do they have the votes, do you believe, to get it to a point where they repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a substitute that they like?
SEN. JON TESTER: I have no idea, because I don’t know of anybody that voted today that knew what they were voting on.
They were voting on potentially a House bill that was going to be replaced with something else, but we don’t know what it is. And I will go back to John McCain’s words. Let’s go back to the committee process and start working together.
But that’s going to have to be something that Mitch McConnell requires, rather than trying to craft something with a limited number of people and a limited number of input that actually doesn’t move the health care system forward and make it more accessible and more affordable, especially for folks in Middle America, because we really get pounded by proposals like the House bill or, what’s even worse, the Senate health care bill that came forth.
I mean, it could literally shut down health care facilities. And that’s what they have told me as I have gone around the state and visited face-to-face with these folks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, what we’re hearing now is what — the version that may have the best chance is what they’re calling skinny repeal, which wouldn’t do away with everything, but it would do away with the individual mandate.
It would do away, I gather, with employer mandate penalty and the medical device tax. Is that something that comes any closer to a consensus?
SEN. JON TESTER: I don’t know that that’s the kind of reform that we need in our health care system. And I think it may be more of a bait-and-switch to be able to get a bill that you could get a number of votes to pass it out and then take it to conference and replace with it a really bad bill. And that’s my concern.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you don’t think that that version, which some Republicans are saying would make them happy, bring some conservatives on board, and perhaps entice moderates, you’re saying you don’t see that as moving the ball?
SEN. JON TESTER: Look, I don’t think it’s going the move the ball.
I think there is another agenda here. And the agenda is to do some really bad things with Medicaid expansion and to block-grant Medicaid, which really hurts rural states — I think it hurts the whole country — and not to address preexisting conditions and lifetime caps.
And if that’s the direction we’re headed, then that’s not the direction I want to go. I think that that skinny bill, that bait-and-switch bill, whatever you want to call it, Trojan horse repeal bill, that bill is not where we will end up at.
And I don’t think you get the conservatives with that bill. And I don’t think you get the moderates either. So, I think what’s happened here is, you have got Mitch McConnell, who has his vote today on something we don’t know what it is going to end up at, and him crafting another bill to put it up to be able to change the bill in conference.
That’s all very convoluted, in the weeds, but that’s where we’re headed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator, you mentioned Medicaid expansion in your own state of Montana.
I’m reading an Associated Press report that talks about the number of Medicaid enrollees having far exceeded the number that were expected. A number of people in your state worrying this program can’t be sustained. I guess they were expecting maybe 30,000 to sign up. It’s been 80,000 who have signed up.
And there’s worry that Montana can’t continue this. Isn’t this the exact sort of thing that Republicans say is what making this whole process unsustainable?
SEN. JON TESTER: I think the Medicaid expansion has been an incredible success in Montana and has really helped people get health care for the first time in their life, the working folks out there that couldn’t afford health care before.
I think this is about priorities. And if our priority is to make sure that people have access to affordable health care, then we need to move forward. But we have got 77,000 folks that signed up for Medicaid expansion in the state of a million and 50,000 people.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing, because now we have people that are going to school that are healthy, that are going to work that are healthy, that own small businesses that healthier, and I think it’s an important step to take.
But I think it’s about priorities. We need to make health care a priority in this country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana, we thank you very much.
SEN. JON TESTER: Thank you.