Something very unusual happened in the U.S. Senate today: a vote scheduled by the Majority Leader failed. The legislation would have repealed an Obama-era rule designed to prevent methane emissions from leaking out of drilling operations on public lands. Brought up under the Congressional Review Act, the resolution only needed 50 votes to pass the Senate, after already passing the House along party lines. But it failed 49-51.
Senate leaders like Mitch McConnell don’t typically advance votes on legislation unless they know it will pass. The Senate floor is almost never the scene for unexpected activity. So what happened?
It may have been Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey.
Three Republicans voted against repealing the methane rule, which was backed by the president. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, had already announced their intention to vote no before the vote. But John McCain, R-Ariz., “unexpectedly” joined them.
Methane leaks on public lands are a significant problem in the Western “four-corner” states of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, an area which is a known “hot spot” for methane emissions. McCain has shown mild support for environmental action in the past. And his friend Lindsey Graham voted no, and perhaps swayed him.
But here’s what McCain was doing right before the vote: On CNN, he condemned the Comey firing, showing an outsized regard for the former FBI director. “When you fire probably, arguably, the most respected person in America, you’d better have a very good explanation, and so far I haven’t seen that,” McCain said. He added that the firing would cause legislative problems. “We have a lot of issues and challenges and this just diverts a lot of that attention.”
McCain’s conduct during the Senate vote also raises red flags. In the C-SPAN video of the vote, McCain can be seen in heated discussion with John Cornyn, R-Texas, the number two man in the Senate leadership, along with John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and an identified Senator with his back to the camera. After yelling at them for close to a minute, McCain goes over to the Senate clerks and gives a thumbs down to record his vote. He then storms out of the chamber, as Cornyn raises his arms in mild protest.