Defense bill moves forward with lawmakers thinking about McCain

Defense bill moves forward with lawmakers thinking about McCain
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The Senate Armed Services Committee will move forward with its annual defense authorization bill with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) undergoing treatment to battle brain cancer 2,200 miles away in Arizona.

McCain for the last several years has been the major force behind crafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and moving it through committee, the rest of the Senate and negotiations with the House. 

His convictions on curtailing program overruns and eliminating wasteful spending have earned him a reputation as a force to be reckoned with among Pentagon officials and defense contractors.

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As the committee now takes up this year’s NDAA, his absence has been felt, according to lawmakers.

“It’s a challenge simply because it’s a little bit different having the chairman physically removed,” the committee’s ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Senate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one Schumer: Trump should cancel meeting with Putin MORE (D-R.I.) said of the bill’s process.

“[McCain is] someone with such great experience and expertise. He is participating through his staff and as a result he’s been able to provide, as he used to do, direction.”

Committee member Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineGraham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Election Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race MORE (D-Va.) said that while the NDAA process is “going smoothly,” McCain is “definitely” missed.

“The real heart of this is when we sit down around the table together all next week and we’re really going to miss him,” Kaine told The Hill.

One of Congress’s most prominent voices on defense issues, McCain for years has decried the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” the influence of defense contractors on the legislative branch.

The 81-year-old former presidential nominee made moves on his long-standing complaints his first year at the helm of the committee in 2015, aiming to kill expensive and unnecessary weapons programs and rewrite rules for how the Defense Department pays its contractors.

Frustrated by troubled development projects like the F-35 fighter jet, he moved to pull major acquisition authorities from Pentagon leaders, and to instead empower military branches to oversee their own programs.

The plan went far beyond the proposals of his House counterpart Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Trump roils NATO on summit's first day | Trump, Merkel relationship sinks lower | House, Senate kick off defense bill talks | Senators symbolically rebuke Trump on national security tariffs Overnight Health Care: Pfizer delaying price hikes after Trump criticism | Dems focus on health care in Supreme Court fight | Feds won’t reunite all 102 detained children by deadline | VA nominee headed to Senate floor vote FDA approves freeze-dried blood plasma for troops in combat MORE (R-Texas), who had simply sought moderate acquisition reforms.

But while tough on programs he deems wasteful, McCain has also been a champion for defense spending. Last year he proposed a military buildup that would add nearly $500 billion to the defense budget through 2021.

And he was integral in negotiations for a $700 billion NDAA in 2018 and locking in agreements on a $716 billion bill for fiscal 2019.

McCain has been gone from Congress since mid-December, following his July 2017 cancer diagnosis.

At home to recover from side effects associated with his treatment, McCain will have some input in the Senate’s defense bill, but not as much as past years, according to defense budgeting analyst Fred Bartels.

“I think you’re going to see a bill that’s blander, more down the middle and it doesn’t carry the weight of McCain’s convictions,” said Bartels, who is with the Heritage Foundation.

In McCain’s place, the committee’s No. 2 Republican James Inhofe (R-Okla.) will lead the NDAA.

A committee staff member told The Hill they have been working closely with Inhofe and his staff “to make sure he is up to speed and prepared for markup.”

But McCain is by no means on the sidelines, they added. McCain “has been very involved in shaping the bill this year, and ... we expect the committee mark will largely reflect his priorities.”

One congressional aide also said this year’s NDAA is very much “McCain’s bill, reflecting his priorities and policy goals.”

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk Ernst, Fischer to square off for leadership post MORE (R-Neb.), the chairwoman of the committee’s strategic forces subpanel, said while there is a different vibe in the committee with McCain gone, “we’ve got all our stuff ready ... it’ll be fine.”