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How The Senate Might Change Now That Sen. John McCain Is Gone

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today would've been John McCain's 82nd birthday. At the Arizona capital, his widow, Cindy McCain, pressed her face against the casket. McCain died Saturday of brain cancer. He will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Friday. His colleagues have been remembering him this week on the Senate floor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Senator from Nebraska.

BEN SASSE: Thank you, Mr. President. Like so many today, I rise to honor John McCain, to sing John McCain's praises.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

During his turn, Republican Senator Ben Sasse described getting to know a man he had known of for a long time.

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SASSE: I knew John McCain as somebody from the history books. I knew John McCain as somebody destined for the history books.

CHANG: I spoke to Ben Sasse today about the impression McCain left on him. We reached Sasse by phone in Nebraska, and I asked him to tell me about the first time they met, which was after Sasse won his primary in 2014.

SASSE: I had a pretty competitive Republican primary. And Senator McCain, who I didn't know as anything other than a hero - that's big enough to know a man - he endorsed against me. And we didn't know each other. I'm more conservative than John, but I loved the man.

And I was in D.C. a few weeks after I won my primary. And so I went to see him, and I said, you know, you're a hero, and I've volunteered for one of your campaigns in the past. And you're also kind of a jerk. You endorsed against me.

CHANG: Wait. Was that the word you used, jerk?

SASSE: I think that my wife is trying to edit what the more locker-roomy (ph) conversation may have been.

CHANG: I heard a different word.

SASSE: It may have been a tiny bit more than jerk, but it didn't come anywhere near the tirade of expletives that Senator McCain let loose. And it was clear that the response was one of instant friendship. He loved people who didn't have time for small stuff. And immediately, he took me under his wing. And I've had 47, 48 months - amazing months of getting to learn a lot about global security and national security from John McCain.

CHANG: I want to talk about where Senator McCain's voice has been strongest in the last several years. He, of course, was not afraid of challenging President Trump. He also often called out Russian President Vladimir Putin for years and years. What does McCain's absence now do to the Senate's ability to hold Russia accountable?

SASSE: Yeah, great question. And let's be clear, Vladimir Putin despised John McCain, and that is an arrow in John's quiver. That is a badge of honor. In 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, Putin stood up and gave this ridiculous speech. And John McCain stood up and said, oh, Mr. Putin, you totally misunderstand what's happened on the global stage over the last two decades.

CHANG: But do you think there are enough people like McCain left in the Senate who can stand up to Putin, literally, as you just described - stand up to Putin like that?

SASSE: Oh, heck no. The Senate is a terribly broken institution. We've got a whole bunch of people who are obsessed with their own incumbency, and they think the best way to accomplish that is by not saying much that might be unpopular with some people.

CHANG: Well, what about you, Senator? I guess I'm directing this question at you personally. I mean, you're a critical voice against the Trump administration often, at least in public statements and on Twitter.

But how far would you be willing to go, especially now, after John McCain's death? I mean, can you tell me about a time where you have put yourself in a difficult position in the Senate where it involved a vote or sponsoring a bill where you were in opposition with most of your party?

SASSE: Well, I think this is primarily a week to be celebrating John McCain. But one of the things that I've been arguing amidst all these debates about naming buildings and naming rooms after John is that I think John - well, he'd have a great joke, by the way, at the idea of renaming a Senate office building The McCain SOB 'cause Senate office buildings are often reduced to those letters at the end. McCain would love it to be called The McCain SOB.

But I don't think he really cares about marble. And so I've been arguing the thing we should do to really honor his spirit is do something disruptive that makes both political parties really uncomfortable.

CHANG: I want to play something you said on the Senate floor yesterday.

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SASSE: If we wanted to make both parties uncomfortable, and John was a guy who loved to point both barrels at both parties, I think we could find a way to do that in a way that the American people would applaud. And I think that might be the right way to honor John McCain.

CHANG: What do you want to do?

SASSE: Each party, whenever they're out of power the last three or four cycles, runs, saying there's an ethics crisis in D.C. And then as soon as they have the power, they say, actually, the people aren't interested in that.

I think we should do something big in an ethics reform area, and gets to the kind of idea of the George Washington farewell address that says, you all ought to be headed back to your Mount Vernons - going back to the place where your neighbors live and from which you came to serve here in a public, modest role for a limited time in a way that has the American people say, these people actually aren't having stock portfolios that grow radically greater than the average American's does during their time in service. Oh, cabinet officials probably shouldn't be raising money from foreign entities in their private capacities while they're in a public role of trust.

I think there's a big bundle of things we ought to do. This is a week we ought to celebrate John McCain. But in the next two or three weeks, I'd like us to do something that's truly McCainian (ph) and that's disruptive enough to make both political parties and all incumbents really uncomfortable.

CHANG: Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, thank you.

SASSE: Thanks for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.