Sen. McCain’s trip to publicize military spending cuts drawing Dems' scrutiny

A trip Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other GOP senators planned for Monday and Tuesday to highlight the impact of looming defense cuts has raised questions about Senate rules and propriety.

McCain and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) plan to visit Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire to discuss pending cuts to the Pentagon that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has compared to suicide.  

But some Democrats have questioned whether the trip is designed to complement the effort by Mitt Romney’s campaign to blame the $500 billion in automatic defense cuts on President Obama.

“It’s the McCain Straight Talk Express. Is he going to rent a bus?” grumbled one Democratic aide, making reference to McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign bus.

Not all Democrats are grumbling, though. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on Friday sent a letter to McCain, Graham and Ayotte applauding their efforts.

Debate over whether McCain’s trip is official business or a traveling political campaign has been fueled by questions over how it is being funded.

Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain, said the trip is being paid for with campaign funds even though it is official business. He said his boss is being careful to follow Senate rules that require campaign money to cover domestic trips outside of a senator’s home state. 

“Pursuant to the guidance of the Senate Ethics Committee, this is an official trip being paid for with campaign funds — the recommended way to pay for travel such as this outside of a member’s home state,” Rogers said.

Rogers initially said a few Senate aides would staff the events, but that raised questions about whether aides would have to take time off to volunteer or would be allowed to use their Senate-issued BlackBerry devices.

A Rules Committee aide said late last week the GOP staffers would have to abide by strict limits.

“They are permitted to use campaign funds — in fact, they have to since it would be impermissible use of Senate funds to pay for staff to travel to attend town hall meetings in states other than their members’ home state,” said the source. “But if these Senate staffers are used to assist in these events, they must be doing so on their own time and without using any official, Senate-provided devices, equipment, etc.”

Rogers said the trip had been pre-approved, but there’s uncertainty whether the Senate Ethics Committee or Rules Committee has jurisdiction over the issue.

After the controversy arose, Rogers told The Hill Friday evening that Senate staff would not participate in the town halls.

"We discussed the matter internally and decided that no Senate staff will be on the trip," he said.

The McCain spokesman said accusations about political motivations are unfounded, and noted the senator has invited the local senators of each state to attend the town hall events.

“This is an official trip. It’s not affiliated with the Romney campaign in any way,” he said.

Democrats are suspicious, however, because it coincides with efforts by Romney to saddle Obama and Democrats with the scheduled cuts.

Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Reno this week that “the president’s policies have ... exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify.”

He said the Defense Department would suffer “an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts.”

“Strategy is not driving President Obama’s massive defense cuts,” he said.

This line of attack has angered Democrats, who argue it is hypocritical for Romney to blame Obama when congressional Republicans were the driving force behind a compromise to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget, split evenly between defense and domestic non-defense programs.

As of Friday afternoon, no Democratic senator had accepted the invitation to appear with McCain, Graham and Ayotte at next week’s town halls.

Nelson pledged in a letter Friday to work with the GOP senators.

“Thank you for your efforts to warn residents in some of the states with high military employment about how automatic spending cuts at the Pentagon could harm their communities,” he wrote. “I will work with you to put our national security and American jobs first.”

McCain, Graham and Ayotte will hold their first town hall meeting at 9:00 am Monday in Tampa to highlight “the impact of looming defense cuts”. They will then travel to Fayetteville, N.C., and Norfolk, Va., later in the day for two more events.

The fourth town hall is planned for Tuesday morning in Merrimack, N.H.