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How John McCain earned the “maverick” reputation he just lived up to on health care

He's bucked the GOP many times before.

Senators Debate Health Care Bill On Capitol Hill Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sen. John McCain’s dramatic Thursday night vote that sank the GOP’s “skinny repeal” bill came a shock to many. But it’s hardly the first time the Republican senator has bucked his party.

To be fair, McCain’s actions on the health care vote will go down in history:

He returned to Washington, DC, from Arizona after surgery and brain cancer diagnosis to vote on a series of health care bills. When he arrived, he made a speech eviscerating his colleagues for their secretive, speedy process on major health care legislation. He then voted to start debate on the legislation, and soon after voted in support of the Better Care Reconciliation Act. But when BCRA failed on a 57-43 margin, McCain pivoted and voted no on the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act.

At the eleventh hour, when a last-ditch “skinny repeal” bill was up for a vote, he joined Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine against it, and killed the bill. As many have pointed out, McCain cast the final vote that saved the signature legislative achievement of the man who beat him in the 2008 presidential race.

It’s hard to imagine any other staunch conservative voting this way. But in the context of McCain’s history as a statesman, this move is not all that surprising. McCain has a track record of bucking the will of the Republican party, going all the way back to when he was a freshman Congress member in the 1980s.

In short: He hasn’t earned the nickname “maverick” for nothing.

1) In 1983, McCain spoke out against sending troops to Lebanon

McCain was a newly minted member of the House of Representatives in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan asked Congress to authorize deploying additional American troops to war torn Lebanon. McCain, a Vietnam veteran, was vocal in his opposition.

Additional troops were ultimately sent to Lebanon with the mission of helping keep peace in the country, but shortly after, tragedy struck: Hundreds of American and European troops were killed in a 1983 suicide attack on a US Marine compound in Beirut, the deadliest attack against Marines since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

2) In his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain was again tax cuts for the rich

McCain’s 2000 primary opponent George W. Bush tried to paint the senator as a left-leaning Republican, and he had plenty of ammunition: At the time, McCain was calling for campaign finance reform and was against tax cuts for the rich, prompting the New Republic to feature him on their cover with the headline, “This Man Is Not A Republican.”

Ultimately, McCain’s positions were part of what cost him the Republican Party’s nomination. But a 2000 campaign speech, read today, sounds an awful lot like another popular presidential candidate who lost a primary: Bernie Sanders.

“There's a growing gap between the haves and have-nots in America,” said McCain at a GOP debate in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And that gap is growing and it is unfortunately divided up along ethnic lines.”

3) He has long advocated for shifting away from fossil fuel dependency

Running for president again in 2008, McCain was the rare Republican to speak at length about the dangers of climate change.

“Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters, and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring,” McCain said at a speech at a wind-generating power plant in Oregon.

He lost the election, but within a year he was working on a bill with former Sen. Joe Lieberman to shift US energy away from fossil fuel and toward renewable energy. (Political pressure from conservatives ultimately forced McCain to cave on the bill or face a primary challenge for his senate seat.)

4) He pushed for bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform

McCain has championed immigration reform at various points in his career, starting in the mid-2000s. He was a vocal advocate for amnesty and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants when the Senate voted on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in 2007.

“I defend with no reservation our proposal to offer the people who harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants, care for our children, and clean our homes a chance to be legal citizens of this country,” McCain said in 2007.

It’s worth noting McCain backed off this position during election years, but made a name for himself again in the bipartisan Gang of Eight, a group of senators that tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. (Their bill passed the senate, but ultimately died in the House.)

5) He took a stand against Trump in 2016

The GOP’s nominee for president in 2008, McCain was conspicuously absent from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Donald Trump had, by then, infamously demeaned McCain’s Vietnam service and imprisonment in an interview.

But when Trump became the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, McCain tepidly supported him.

Then the Washington Post leaked the Access Hollywood tape of Trump talking about groping women. After that, McCain said he could no longer stand behind Trump and would not vote for him in the election.

"I thought it important I respect the fact that Donald Trump won a majority of the delegates by the rules our party set. I thought I owed his supporters that deference," McCain told reporters. "But Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy."

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