John McCain Poised to Control Senate’s Defense Policy

The move will give the hawk an influential avenue to merge his two favorite roles: administration critic and legislative deal maker.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (R) questions former Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security with committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) (L) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would replace Secretary Janet Napolitano who left DHS in September.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Nov. 5, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

One of the pres­id­ent’s chief crit­ics could soon lead the Sen­ate’s main mil­it­ary com­mit­tee.

With Re­pub­lic­ans gain­ing the ma­jor­ity in the up­per cham­ber in Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions, Sen. John Mc­Cain is widely ex­pec­ted to be­come the next Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee chair­man in Janu­ary.

Mc­Cain, the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in 2008, has dec­ades of ex­per­i­ence in for­eign policy and de­fense is­sues in the Sen­ate, where he was first elec­ted in 1986. He also served in the Navy, and he spent more than five years as a pris­on­er of war after his plane was shot down dur­ing the Vi­et­nam War.

As com­mit­tee chair­man, Mc­Cain would have an in­flu­en­tial role in spear­head­ing de­fense policy from Cap­it­ol Hill. That in­cludes the Sen­ate’s ver­sion of the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, an an­nu­al bill that out­lines de­fense policy and tells the Pentagon what it can and can’t spend money on. He’ll also gain a mega­phone to voice his fre­quent op­pos­i­tion to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on mil­it­ary and na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues.

On Tues­day, Pentagon spokes­man Rear Adm. John Kirby down­played any con­cerns over Mc­Cain gain­ing the top spot, but, at least pub­licly, the sen­at­or’s re­la­tion­ship with the Pentagon has been rocky.

For ex­ample, dur­ing the past year, Mc­Cain put a hold on Bob Work’s nom­in­a­tion to be deputy De­fense sec­ret­ary, called the ad­min­is­tra­tion “cow­ardly” for not provid­ing arms to Ukraine’s mil­it­ary, and fre­quently cri­ti­cized the strategy to com­bat the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia.

And his blunt style isn’t likely to change once he be­comes chair­man.

“With Sen­at­or Mc­Cain, what you see is what you get. It’s part of his charm and per­sona, that he is a mav­er­ick—he is an out­spoken mav­er­ick—that tells it like it is to any­one of any party,” said Mack­en­zie Eaglen, a fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton-based Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute think tank. “He wasn’t best friends with the De­fense De­part­ment when the last pres­id­ent was in of­fice either.”

Des­pite Mc­Cain’s pen­chant for straight talk, he’s also known for a will­ing­ness to work with his op­pon­ents and find a solu­tion—for ex­ample, on im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion with the “Gang of Eight.” And there are at least two areas where he and top Pentagon of­fi­cials agree that something has to change: budget cuts un­der se­quest­ra­tion and how the De­fense De­part­ment buys what it needs.

Without ac­tion from Con­gress, the budget caps would re­turn in Oc­to­ber 2015, the start of the 2016 fisc­al year. Un­der Obama’s five-year budget, the Pentagon pro­jects that it will need more than $535 bil­lion in fisc­al 2016. But un­der the budget caps, the Pentagon is ex­pec­ted to re­ceive less than $500 bil­lion, leav­ing a roughly $35 bil­lion budget gap.

Mc­Cain has been press­ing for years to re­verse or re­place the cuts. And Eaglen called a budget deal—sim­il­ar to the Ry­an-Murphy agree­ment that eased budget cuts for fisc­al 2014 and 2015—”a no brain­er.” But Eaglen also ac­know­ledged that com­pletely un­do­ing the se­quester for the Pentagon is “much easi­er said than done.”

Mc­Cain is also ex­pec­ted to be out­spoken on re­form­ing the Pentagon’s ac­quis­i­tions pro­cess—or how the de­part­ment buys the pro­grams and tech­no­logy it needs. He re­leased a re­port that out­lined po­ten­tial im­prove­ments to the sys­tem last month with cur­rent chair­man Sen. Carl Lev­in.

Mc­Cain will likely have an ally in Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mac Thorn­berry, the front-run­ner to re­place Rep. Buck McK­eon, as chair of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and Frank Kend­all, the Pentagon’s un­der sec­ret­ary of De­fense for ac­quis­i­tion, tech­no­logy, and lo­gist­ics. Kend­all has been work­ing on a re­form ef­fort, with the fi­nal draft ex­pec­ted to be re­leased early next year.

“That’s a really power­ful tri­fecta of people that care about ac­quis­i­tion re­form,” Eaglen said.

But that also likely means Mc­Cain will be giv­ing some tough talks to in­dustry of­fi­cials. He’s been par­tic­u­larly crit­ic­al of Lock­heed Mar­tin’s F-35 air­craft, which has faced a series of delays and budget prob­lems, as well the Navy’s lit­tor­al com­bat ship. He called the small ves­sel, which was sup­posed to help add flex­ib­il­ity to the Navy’s fleet, “over budget, be­hind sched­ule, [and] de­fi­cient” dur­ing a Sen­ate hear­ing earli­er this year.

But one in­dustry of­fi­cial dis­missed spec­u­la­tion that Mc­Cain will have a com­bat­ive re­la­tion­ship with in­dustry or the Pentagon.

“He ex­pects in­dustry to give him straight an­swers, and holds us ac­count­able. I would hope that he would hold the Pentagon ac­count­able,” the of­fi­cial said, re­quest­ing an­onym­ity so they could speak can­didly. “One of the things I think needs to hap­pen in the Con­gress in gen­er­al is a great­er amount of over­sight versus just re­view­ing line-item de­tails in the budget.”

Tech­nic­ally, Mc­Cain hasn’t been named to the com­mit­tee’s top spot yet. Chair­man­ships likely won’t be an­nounced un­til next month, but Mc­Cain has made no secret of the fact that he’s long coveted the po­s­i­tion. He told a Phoenix ra­dio sta­tion earli­er this year, “I would be so happy to be chair­man of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.”

And in the Sen­ate, where chair­man­ships largely fol­low seni­or­ity, Mc­Cain has a lock on the job. He out­ranks Sen. Jim In­hofe, the com­mit­tee’s cur­rent rank­ing mem­ber. The Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an will re­portedly head up the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee next year.

Mc­Cain, whose staff didn’t re­spond to re­quest for com­ment, pre­vi­ously served as the rank­ing mem­ber for six years.  His party was in the minor­ity dur­ing that peri­od, and ac­cord­ing to Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an rules that gov­ern com­mit­tee se­lec­tion, he can serve up to six years as chair­man be­fore be­ing term lim­ited

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