For Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, the death of Sen. John McCain means losing a Senate ally on a topic of deep personal importance to them both.
McCain died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81.
Like McCain, Coffman is a veteran, serving with the Marines in both Gulf Wars. In Congress, the two worked together frequently on veterans affairs, each holding a leadership role on his chamber’s Armed Services Committee.
“He was always so kind to me, as a fellow veteran,” said Coffman after a Sunday district event. “I certainly looked up to him for his service... and even when we had disagreements, we were always very, very civil.”
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In recent years, the men disagreed publicly over whether the service academies should be allowed to exempt their football players from their required years of military service if the young men were recruited by the NFL. Coffman succeeded in passing a measure in the House to end that practice. In the Senate?
“We were at a meeting,” Coffman recalled, “and he just looked at me and said, ‘you know that’s just really not going to happen. I’m a graduate of the Naval Academy and a member of their alumni service...’”
Coffman laughs now, telling that anecdote.
The two men worked together, though, on the last bill Sen. McCain managed to pass. It would expand a diversion program for veterans caught up in the criminal justice system, by allowing them to complete counseling, drug treatment, and other requirements to avoid jail time. It’s now on the president’s desk.
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Coffman remembers speaking with McCain on the floor of the House, shortly after his own failed run for the White House, while both men were waiting for President Barack Obama to deliver his first State of the Union. Coffman was struck by how sincerely McCain hoped the president would succeed, despite losing to him just months earlier.
“His legacy is bipartisanship,” Coffman said. “And so I hope that members of Congress, and the American people, reflect on that legacy. Because with the polarization we have right now in Washington D.C., there’s just not enough getting done for the American people.”
The Democrat running against Coffman this year, Jason Crow, is also a veteran. And he too had words of praise for Senator McCain. Crow tweeted on Saturday that McCain’s “courageous service and desire to choose country over party are an example for all to follow.”
CPR News’ Bente Birkeland and Megan Verlee contributed to this report.