McCain holds 'Skywalker' presence over Capitol Hill, despite being ill, thousands of miles away

Luke Skywalker wasn’t even there.

The Jedi master appeared to materialize on the red-salt planet known as Crait to duel his nephew Kylo Ren with a light saber in the latest installment of the Star Wars saga, “The Last Jedi.”

Only Skywalker was halfway across the galaxy in self-imposed seclusion on the desolate island planet Ahch-To. For the battle with Ren, Skywalker projected himself as an apparition “Force ghost,” as it’s known in the Star Wars canon. And despite Skywalker’s absence, his influence and power was felt lightyears away in the middle of a seminal battle far, far away.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, hasn’t been in Washington much since his brain cancer diagnosis last summer. He last voted on the floor on December 7. McCain may be absent from the Senate. Yet, he seems omnipresent around the Capitol these days.

This curious phenomenon of McCain’s burgeoning influence in Washington while even in absentia reached a crescendo this week. Conjecture and speculation about his health and even funeral wishes seemed to accelerate of late. Then on Wednesday night, McCain issued the first policy statement of any kind since April 13. The senator opposed the nomination of Gina Haspel to become CIA director.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” McCain wrote. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

It’s not unprecedented for the views of an elder statesman like McCain, tortured as a Vietnam War prisoner, to influence other lawmakers when it comes to a big vote. But his comments on Haspel -- after virtual silence for weeks -- resonated profoundly with senators.

“You have to give it great credibility,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee who hasn’t yet made up his mind about Haspel.

“He should be very persuasive,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is a “no” on Haspel. “This is a man who had endured real torture over a substantial period of time in a foreign setting and he’s an American hero. So I would hope people would listen to our heroes.”

Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who’s undecided about Haspel, said, “His opinion carries a lot of weight with a lot of people, me included.”

McCain’s absence is underscored regularly in the Senate’s sometimes complicated parliamentary math. Republicans hold a 51 to 49 edge in the Senate. That’s part of the reason Vice President Pence has broken a staggering nine ties in his 16 months on the job.

McCain’s presence last summer, despite wrestling with glioblastoma, allowed the Senate to launch its debate to repeal and replace ObamaCare. McCain’s presence a few days later promptly ended the effort. McCain voted yea the first time. No the second time. His support of the tax reform bill was crucial in early December. The Senate approved the first version of the package, 51-49, just after 2 am.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was the lone GOP nay. A few weeks later, the Senate OK’d the final version of the tax measure, 51-48. McCain wasn’t there. Corker switched to an aye. But Pence presided just in case he was needed to break a tie.

Now the Senate’s trying to confirm Haspel as CIA director. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., insists he’s a hard no. Paul flagged concerns about Haspel and harsh interrogations weeks ago when President Trump nominated Haspel.

When pressed this week, Paul reiterated his position. But he also said he wouldn’t budge from his opposition for Mike Pompeo to become Secretary of State. However, after a call from the president and a one-on-one with Pompeo, Paul flipped and voted for Pompeo.

Might Paul reconsider his opposition to Haspel the way he did with Pompeo?

“Did you hear me the first time?” Paul snapped when pressed by Fox News.

With McCain out and Paul a no, that means there are a maximum of 49 Republican yeas for Haspel. Flake remains undecided. Sens. Joe Manchin, W.V., and Joe Donnelly, Indiana, are the only Democrats who say they’ll vote for Haspel. Several other Democrats also could vote yes. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, thinks the Senate will confirm Haspel “handily.” But there’s concern that McCain’s opposition could impact other senators.

It’s doubtful McCain will cast a ballot on Haspel since he hasn’t voted since December. And his statement doesn’t say he’ll “vote no” on the nomination. The senator simply offers his view: “I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

And so McCain’s substantial clout, even thousands of miles from Washington, appears to have gotten under the skin of White House communications aide Kelly Sadler. Especially when it came to his objections to Haspel.

“He’s dying anyway,” Sadler said of McCain’s opposition to Haspel.

The Sadler story exploded, dominating Washington.

“I don’t understand what kind of an environment you’re working in that that would be acceptable and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job,” said McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain on ABC’s “The View.”

“People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday,” said former Vice President Joe Biden. “Given this White House’s trail of disrespect toward John and others, this staffer is not the exception to the rule. She is the epitome of it.”

It’s hard to imagine any other senator playing such a colossal role in Washington while they were convalescing thousands of miles away from the most serious of illnesses. Sure. Senate absences have always been key when it comes to big votes.

Think of recent votes on tax reform and health care and the touch-and-go presence of now former Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. The same with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts, as fellow Democrats tried to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2009. But McCain’s influence appears to eclipse any of that.

McCain’s captivity and torture in Vietnam carries a sordid history with Trump.

“He’s not a war hero,” the president proclaimed during the campaign. “I like people that weren’t captured.”

And so, Haspel’s nomination swings in the balance. Central to her confirmation is how she handled “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the CIA.

In his statement about Haspel, McCain said her confirmation hearing granted the nominee a chance to “account for the mistakes the country made in torturing detainees held in U.S. custody after the September 11th attacks. Unfortunately, the testimony the American people heard from Ms. Haspel today failed to address these concerns.”

It’s unclear whether McCain’s opposition will change any votes among his colleagues.

He hasn’t been to the Capitol in months. But the senator casts a long shadow down the marble corridors of Capitol Hill. Like Luke Skywalker going into battle, exercising his power and influence from miles away.

McCain’s not here. But he may as well be.