John McCain's Brain Cancer Diagnosis Shakes Up Washington

Senate Republicans expressed reverence for their colleague, and uncertainty about what will become of Obamacare repeal

Sen. John McCain recently received a diagnosis of aggressive brain cancer. Credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty

The announcement of Sen. John McCain's aggressive brain cancer diagnosis sent shockwaves through usually staid Washington Wednesday evening.

On Capitol Hill, McCain is seen as one of the last remaining titans of a bygone era – one in which lawmakers weren't as afraid to attach their names to bills sponsored by their political opponents, and in which they actively sought out support across the aisle for love of both country and party.

News of McCain's cancer – reportedly discovered while he was having a blood clot removed last week – has left his fellow Republicans expressing reverence for their colleague while still scrambling to rush through a health care bill without any input from their Democratic counterparts. It's not a Senate the John McCain of old would have applauded, but it's one he seems to be embracing, even amid the diagnosis.

"It is tough," an emotional Lindsey Graham, McCain's longtime senatorial partner and close friend, tells Rolling Stone. "[I] talked to John. He said, 'Yeah, I'm going to have to stay here a little bit longer and take some treatments, and I'll be back.' And we talked about five minutes – 'It's going to be a tough way forward, but,' he says, 'I've been through worse' – and basically then we started talking about health care and the [National Defense Authorization Act]. Literally it wasn't five minutes until he turned away from what I think most people would have a hard time absorbing and focused on what he loves best.

"This disease has never had a more worthy opponent," says the South Carolina Republican, adding that, on everything from immigration reform to this current health care overhaul, McCain has long been "resolved and determined."

A handful of Republican senators learned of McCain's diagnosis Wednesday night while in a private meeting on health care with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

"We stopped and said a prayer for John and his family. We don't know what the prognosis is," Republican Sen. John Kennedy tells the press corps outside the meeting, noting that the GOP is plowing ahead despite losing a key vote in their effort to overhaul one-sixth of the U.S. economy with no Democratic buy-in next week. "I think everyone's mindful of the deadline," he says.

"All of us stopped – it was a sobering moment. John is someone who we work with, we serve with, we respect, and it is very sad news," Sen. Ted Cruz tells Rolling Stone.

While it's unclear when or if Washington will once again see the war hero and former presidential nominee, McCain's presence is already missed by Republican bean-counters itching to repeal Obamacare.

Asked whether McCain's diagnosis changes anything in the ongoing health care debate, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy offers, grimly, "Of course, and keep him in your prayers ... one less vote."

"It will certainly have an impact on the institution of the Senate," GOP Sen. John Thune tells Rolling Stone. "Obviously it's shaken this place up pretty bad. ... It remains to be seen. It's too early to predict at this point, but it's definitely a bombshell."

As Sen. Ron Johnson leaves the Wednesday evening meeting, the Wisconsin Republican, who helped tank the Senate's plan B repeal-and-overhaul effort, is asked if he knows what he's ostensibly going to vote on next week. "No," he says, putting him in the company of most of his colleagues, the president and, likely, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Politicians and former presidents share best wishes for Senator John McCain's speedy recovery in light of his recent cancer diagnosis. Watch here.