By Bob Cusack and Roxana Tiron - 05/04/10 12:25 AM EDT
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is playing a major role in blocking a House bill that has a record number of co-sponsors.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), is one of the more straightforward bills in Congress. It would add three words to the Navy Department’s name, changing it from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.
The provisions in Jones’s legislation previously passed the lower chamber as part of the annual defense authorization bill, but were repeatedly rejected in conference by senators, including McCain.
The Marine Corps is under the umbrella of the Navy Department, a fact that proponents of the Jones bill say some people don’t know — including members of Congress.
Jones contends that not including the Marine Corps in the Navy Department’s formal name is a slight to the Marines who have fought and died for the U.S.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee who served as a Navy captain, disagrees. Asked if he backs the Jones measure, McCain, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, responded, “No. I don’t. That’s the Department of the Navy.”
Citing the Arizonan’s stance on Iraq, Jones was one of the few congressional Republicans who declined to endorse McCain for president in 2008. The North Carolina legislator has been a strong critic of the Iraq war and the subsequent surge of U.S. troops.
In an interview, Jones acknowledged that his stance on the war and decision to withhold a presidential endorsement probably haven’t sat well with McCain, but added, “This isn’t about Walter Jones. This isn’t about John McCain. This is about the Marines who serve this country. Haven’t they earned the right to be recognized?”
Jones has collected 415 co-sponsors on his bill, ranging from Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
It has the most co-sponsors of any House bill in 37 years, according to the Congressional Research Service, which informed Jones’s office that such records are electronically unavailable prior to 1973.
While many in Congress concentrate on big-ticket items like healthcare or immigration as their top priorities, Jones for more than 10 years has had a laser-like focus on adding those three words to the Department of the Navy’s name.
Jones said he personally approached 99 percent of the lawmakers who have endorsed his measure, mostly during House votes.
The 67-year-old lawmaker, whose district encompasses Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, said he was first alerted to the issue by Maj. Gen. R.G. Richard in 1999.
Two years later, Jones introduced the bill. At the end of each Congress since then, the legislation has died, usually in the upper chamber.
For years, former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), who served as the secretary of the Navy, strongly opposed the Jones language. The bill’s prospects improved when Warner retired last cycle, but Jones still faces a significant obstacle in McCain.
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a defense authorizer and co-sponsor of the bill, said, “I already told Walter that I would help him in any way that I can … Sen. McCain, let’s face it — he is a very influential senator.”
McCain’s primary opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), supports Jones’s bill, according to a Hayworth spokesman.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), an Armed Services Committee member, said, “Personally, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I was very proud to have served in the Marine Corps and very proud to have been secretary of the Navy … I did not have any problem being a Marine serving in the Department of the Navy.”
Like the Obama administration, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has not taken a position publicly on the legislation.
Levin indicated that it’s not one of his top priorities, saying, “I don’t know that we will have time to look at that issue again.”
Jones is undeterred. He is working with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who has introduced a companion bill, to secure language in the final defense authorization bill this fall.
Both North Carolina senators, Sens. Richard Burr (R) and Kay Hagan (D), have endorsed Roberts’s bill, as have Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Roberts’s office declined repeated requests for comment.
Jones recently convinced a celebrity to make the case to Congress.
R. Lee Ermey, a retired Marine Corps drill instructor and actor who is best known for his role in the feature film “Full Metal Jacket,” has called on lawmakers to pass the Jones measure.
Ermey told The Hill, “I can’t understand Sen. McCain’s thoughts on this.”
The self-described independent added that the name change would give the Marine Corps “their fair shake,” calling it “ridiculous” that Congress hasn’t yet passed such a simple bill.
Other backers of the name change include Oliver North and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Proponents of the legislation note that the cost of it would be minimal, saying it would allow the Navy Department to use its old stationery until it ran out. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the price tag as “less than $500,000 a year over the next several years.”
“It’s not a budget issue,” Jones said. “It’s a matter of respect.”
Michael Blum, the executive director of the Marine Corps League, which represents active and retired Marines, expressed optimism that the bill will make it through the Senate this year.
“Sens. McCain and Webb are only two people and they have their own personal reasons for why they would not be in favor of it,” Blum said.