McCain’s Influence from Afar

The Arizona Republican still runs the show at the Senate Armed Services Committee, but his absence from the Hill has been felt on some of this year’s most contentious debates.

Sen. John McCain delivers remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. on Oct. 30, 2017.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
March 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

John McCain hasn’t stepped foot in Washington since December. But he’s still doing plenty to ensure that his voice is heard in the halls of the Capitol, even if it’s not as loud as it once was.

As he fights brain cancer more than 2,000 miles away, the Arizona Republican has continued to run the show at the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. He’s introduced legislation on issues ranging from immigration to Navy readiness to earmarks. And he routinely releases statements on the pressing matters of the day.

While his Senate colleagues appreciate the contributions he’s made from afar, they can’t help but wonder how debates over bills, committee hearings, or trips abroad might have turned out differently if McCain, a leader and mentor to so many, was around.

“There’s no substitute for Senator McCain’s voice on national security and other issues,” said Lindsey Graham, a close friend of McCain’s. “Senator McCain’s voice is unique and there’s no one like him. So I hope he can make it back. I know he’s trying.”

In McCain’s stead, Jim Inhofe has been chairing Armed Services Committee hearings. But he said McCain is still “driving the agenda,” staying in contact with staff and providing input on a daily basis. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the panel, added that the committee is still operating smoothly because McCain helped foster an environment where the staffs of the chairman and ranking member work well together.

Members of the panel have different ways of keeping in touch with McCain. Reed said the two trade notes every once in a while to check in on committee business and to make sure McCain is “enjoying the sun.” Dan Sullivan said he texts McCain “fairly regularly” even though he’s “not a texter or an emailer.”

Reed said McCain’s absence will be most felt as the committee begins drafting the annual National Defense Authorization Act. “His participation either from Arizona or here is going to be even more important,” Reed said.

Aside from the policy proposals that the committee will take up, Thom Tillis said the dynamics at committee hearings are different without McCain because he possesses an unique ability to keep members on track and prevent them from grandstanding.

“I think he can very quickly just … skip back to the facts when people are maybe using a committee hearing for as much of a political speech as a policy speech,” Tillis said. “He does a remarkable job in a five-second transition of getting people focused on the main thing.”

Over the weeklong recess last month, a congressional delegation including Inhofe and Sullivan visited the Asia-Pacific. Sullivan said it would have been useful to have McCain on that trip, and in Washington generally, to weigh in on U.S. policy towards North Korea and China, given his deep knowledge and experience in the region.

“The one thing I’ve kind of missed, to be honest, is I traveled with him a lot. And when you travel with him … you learn a lot,” Sullivan said. “Most country leaders actually want to be seen with him, be with him, so the meetings are always very substantive.”

Outside of the Armed Services Committee, some senators would have liked to have had McCain around when the Trump administration announced in late January it would not immediately impose new Russia sanctions mandated by Congress. McCain was one of the original sponsors of the bipartisan Russia-sanctions legislation signed into law last summer. Several Democrats, including Ben Cardin, responded by introducing a resolution calling on the administration to impose the penalties, but no Republicans signed on.

“I feel very confident that what I’m saying, he would probably say a little stronger,” Cardin said of McCain. “There’s no question in my mind that if he were here, it probably would have been a McCain resolution, not a Cardin resolution.”

On the domestic side, McCain tried to strike a compromise during a contentious debate on immigration. He cosponsored a bill with Chris Coons, a Democrat, that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who arrived to the country as children while bolstering funding for border security. Coons said he believes their failed measure would have gotten more votes and that the Senate would have been able to reach a deal on the fate of the “Dreamers” if McCain was in Washington.

“In many ways, he is the moral center of the Republican caucus when he’s been here and been able to engage with his colleagues and persuade them,” Coons said. “I’ve seen him have sort of a tidal pull impact on a number of senators who both admire him personally and who understand his commitment to bipartisanship.”

For the time being, McCain will have to exercise that “tidal pull” from a distance. His office, which declined to comment for this article, initially said McCain would return in January. But Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, said last month the flu season prevented that from happening.

In interviews with seven senators, none said they had any idea when McCain might come back to Washington. “My view is, the sooner the better,” Sullivan said.

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