Washington (AFP) – John McCain has been home in Arizona fighting brain cancer for months, and while the US Senate awaits his possible comeback, many colleagues have begun facing the prospect that the political titan might never return to Washington.
In quiet conversations in the Capitol, more than a dozen senators — several of them McCain’s friends for a quarter-century or more — acknowledged they are struggling to adjust to a Senate without the larger-than-life lawmaker in their midst.
Each is eager for McCain to come back, but privately some concede it may not happen.
The occasionally irascible national security hawk and 2008 Republican presidential nominee has not appeared in Congress this year.
“I miss him all the time,” Senate Democrat Michael Bennet told AFP, noting that McCain has routinely gone “out of his way” to work with Democrats.
McCain, a 81-year-old six-term senator, was diagnosed last year with glioblastoma, the same aggressive form of brain cancer that took the life of another Senate giant, Ted Kennedy, in 2009.
McCain’s future may have a pronounced impact on Republican efforts to maintain their narrow Senate majority. Should he retire or die this month, it would likely trigger a special election for his replacement in November, during a year of sweeping Democratic enthusiasm.
Lawmakers have avoided directly broaching such taboo subjects.
“He ain’t gone,” Republican Senator Roger Wicker said in an interview, adding that McCain remains “very much still a presence” in the chamber, conducting conference calls with staff and maintaining his Armed Services Committee chairmanship.
But his absence was palpable Wednesday when the Senate Intelligence Committee grilled CIA nominee Gina Haspel over her role in the post-9/11 enhanced interrogation program set up under George W. Bush.
“It’s hard to have a meaningful debate about a big issue like torture without John McCain,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, noting McCain’s brutal treatment during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“He was somebody that guided us through some of these life-and-death issues because he was one of the few that had faced those stakes personally.”
McCain released a statement opposing Haspel.
“Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” he said.
– ‘Incredible deference’ –
McCain’s extensive challenges and exploits have earned his colleagues’ admiration and respect. Now they are there for him as he contends with his toughest challenge.
Former vice president Joe Biden, a cherished friend who served in the Senate for decades, visited McCain and wife Cindy recently at their ranch outside Sonoma.
“I wanted to let him know how much I love him and how much he matters to me and how much I admire his integrity and his courage,” Biden told The New York Times.
Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain’s close friend, has also made the trip. Arizona’s retiring junior Senator Jeff Flake has visited twice in recent weeks.
“We had a good conversation,” Flake said of their latest meeting, which included an hour-long lunch. But he declined to discuss McCain’s health.
In early 2018, explicit talk of McCain retiring early or dying was rare, and even today, senators allow privately that little has been done to prepare for an official farewell.
“People are showing incredible deference,” one senator said.
During his treatment, McCain penned and voiced a new memoir, “The Restless Wave,” in which he gets the last word on his astounding career, addressing his leading roles in immigration reform and health care policy, and his adventures on the world stage.
In the book, which comes out later this month, he calls on Americans to “recover our sense that we are more alike than different.”
But he also addresses his possible end, writing, “Maybe I’ll be gone before you read this.”
– Country over party –
Lawmakers have begun gingerly addressing the issue.
Senator Orrin Hatch recently apologized after saying he thought it was “ridiculous” that McCain did not want President Donald Trump, who once mocked McCain’s capture, to attend his funeral.
One longtime senator declined to explicitly call his visit with McCain earlier this year a final farewell. But his voice cracked as he described to AFP how they parted: “We put our arms around each other and said goodbye.”
As much as McCain is an outsized personality with a volatile temper, he has had a generally calming influence on the chamber, one of the few senators who brings both sides together.
“There’s just no question that country matters more to John than party,” said Murphy.
Senator Dick Durbin, first elected to Congress in 1982, the same year as McCain, paused when asked what he missed about his friend.
“Half the time he infuriated me, and the other half he inspired me,” the Democrat said, expressing hope McCain could one day return to the Senate.
“I hope in the meantime we can still hear his voice.”