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Trump's military moves accelerate GOP search for next McCain

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE’s sudden announcements to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and dramatically reduce combat forces in Afghanistan have Republicans wondering who will fill the void left by the late John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSylvester Stallone reportedly joins Trump's Mar-a-Lago The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Cindy McCain to be named Biden ambassador to UN program: report MORE, a prominent authority on national security willing to speak for the nation’s military commanders.

McCain’s absence was strongly felt last week when Trump unexpectedly announced his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. While there was general pushback in the Senate, some observers said the GOP’s criticism of the commander in chief did not match the authoritative voice of McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“We miss his voice and his actions,” said John Weaver, a longtime political adviser to McCain. “Can you imagine if John was still the chairman of the Armed Services Committee? It would have been rather dramatic.”

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Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeBiden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike Sanders expresses 'serious concerns' with Biden's defense increase Senate GOP slams Biden defense budget MORE (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Armed Services panel, is one of Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, and the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jim RischJim Elroy RischGOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Lack of cyber funds in Biden infrastructure plan raises eyebrows The Hill's Morning Report - Biden shifts on filibuster MORE (R-Idaho), often defers to the president — at least compared to retiring panel chairman Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 It's time for Biden's Cuba MORE (R-Tenn.). 

McCain also spent almost every Christmas with U.S. troops overseas, whereas Trump made his first visit to a combat zone this week when he visited American forces in Iraq.

There’s also a growing sentiment among some Republican lawmakers that they need to do more to assert their independence from Trump on foreign policy and national security.

“I think senators need to step up and reassert a bigger role for the Senate in defining our foreign policy,” Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeySasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Philly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “With respect to foreign policy, in general, and Syria, in particular, we really have to step up.”

The leading contenders to take up McCain’s torch are Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike MORE (R-S.C.), who is spearheading the pushback on Trump’s Syria policy, and Sen.-elect Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' Trump's early endorsements reveal GOP rift Two sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah MORE (R-Utah), who was one of the first prominent voices to identify Russia as a dangerous geopolitical rival.

“There are only two people that have the standing and have shown the ability and past willingness to speak truth to power, and that’s Lindsey and Sen. Romney,” Weaver said. “There’s nobody else in our conference capable or willing to do that.”

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Corker was the Senate Republican Conference’s leading critic of Trump’s foreign policy decisions over the past two years, but he will retire at year’s end, leaving many to see Romney taking over that role.

“I would think Mitt Romney would be very vocal on these issues,” Corker told The Hill, citing what he called Trump’s “willy-nilly” tariff policy, the administration’s response to the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the decision to pull out of Syria.

“My guess is we’re building to a place where numbers of people [will speak out], and numbers of people are speaking out,” he said.

Romney, like McCain, ran two high-profile presidential campaigns and once won the party’s nomination. He was well out in front of most national leaders in the 2012 presidential election when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Russia “is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe” and called then-President Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Russia “very troubling.”

Graham, who was McCain’s best friend in the Senate before the Arizona senator died in August, has introduced a resolution urging Trump to reverse his Syria decision and says he’s “willing to fight a Republican” president who doesn’t follow “sound military advice.”

Graham has been a voice for military leaders, much like McCain was when he was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in speaking out against the president.

Hours before Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE announced his resignation, Graham told reporters that Mattis “thought the time was not right to leave” and is “very worried” about the future of Kurdish allies.

He invoked McCain’s name to bolster his argument on Syria, telling reporters: “John’s voice has been consistent, whether you agreed with him or not. We need to do more in Syria. It’s going to get worse if you leave and if you do nothing. As usual, he was almost always right.”

Republicans have traditionally dominated Democrats in the polls when it comes to national defense and the military, but some polls in the past year showed that advantage could slip as Trump has come under sharp criticism for disregarding military advice and pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.

Democrats gained some ground on national defense, an issue that isn’t surveyed as much as other hot-button topics like health care, immigration and gun control policy.

A survey from Quinnipiac University Poll from August showed the GOP’s advantage on national security starting to slip. Forty-eight percent of voters polled said they saw Republicans as better at handling defense issues, while 40 percent saw Democrats as more capable.

A Gallup poll from more than a year earlier — June 2017 — showed Republicans dominating Democrats on handling national defense and military issues, 57 percent to 35 percent.

Weaver said the party’s traditional strength on national security is slipping because “of Trump’s close ties to Russia and the way he has handled our alliances.”

“He defines the party these days,” he said.

Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Biden nominating first female Army secretary | Israel gets tough on Iran amid nuclear talks | Army's top enlisted soldier 'very proud' of officer pepper sprayed by police On The Money: CDC extends coronavirus eviction ban through June 30 | Biden to detail infrastructure proposal Wednesday | US won't quickly lift Trump tariffs on China Senate panel ties on embattled Pentagon nominee MORE (R.I.), a West Point graduate who served with McCain on the Armed Services Committee and is now the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, said it’s going to take a long time for a Republican to fill McCain’s shoes.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. You’re stepping into the shoes of someone who is literally legendary. You’ll see things change but it will take a while,” he said.

Reed said McCain “would’ve objected strenuously” to last week’s decision to withdraw from Syria but added that no one in today’s GOP yet commands “the immediate attention, recognition and credibility” as McCain did as a two-time presidential candidate and war hero.

“But you’ll see people gradually emerging,” he added.

Graham and Romney, if he chooses to become a counterweight to Trump on foreign policy, could have support from a small group of Senate Republicans who are jockeying to become more influential voices on national security. They include Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNikki Haley says if Trump runs for president in 2024 then she won't Trump's early endorsements reveal GOP rift The Memo: Biden's five biggest foreign policy challenges MORE (Fla.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Senate Republicans voice opposition to Biden on Iran Biden infrastructure proposal prioritizes funds for emerging technologies MORE (Ind.) and Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanCongress must address the toxic exposure our veterans have endured GOP lawmakers ask Biden administration for guidance on reopening cruise industry Alaska's other GOP senator says he'll back Murkowski for reelection MORE (Alaska).

Rubio warned after Trump’s chummy appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit in July that “foreign policy must be based on reality, not hyperbole or wishful thinking. And the reality is Russia is an adversary.”

In November, Rubio criticized the Trump administration’s kid-glove treatment of Saudi Arabia after the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Our foreign policy must be about promoting our national interests. It is in our [national] interest to defend human rights,” he tweeted, arguing that looking past Saudi human rights abuses would “help extremism flourish.”

Sullivan and Young, who both have military credentials, were among a dozen Republican senators who grilled Vice President Pence over Trump’s Syria decision during a private meeting.

“They are positioning themselves, those who are speaking out,” said a Senate GOP aide.

Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, was called to active duty to serve with a counterterrorist task force in Afghanistan in 2013. He also served as a U.S. assistant secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, where he worked on combating terrorist financing and energy and trade issues.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiNixed Interior nominee appointed to different department role  Against mounting odds, Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan GOP Senate campaign arm awards Trump as he rails against McConnell MORE (R-Alaska) said that kind of experience positions Sullivan to be an authoritative and independent voice on foreign policy and defense.

“He is not shy in expressing his views when it comes to national security,” she said. “He’s very much a patriot. He’s a very loyal Republican but he is one who will always put country first above the more political aspects of a debate.”

Young graduated from the Naval Academy with honors and accepted a commission in the Marine Corps, where he served as an intelligence officer.

McCain, who graduated from the Naval Academy more than 30 years before Young, saw the Indiana Republican as a potential ally after he was first elected to the Senate. 

And while Young has styled himself more as a traditional Republican than a McCain-style maverick, he has become one of the Senate’s most outspoken critics of the nation’s support of a Saudi-backed coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war.

Young warns that famine caused by Saudi bombing of a port where humanitarian aid is received in Yemen could pose national security risks down the road.

“Starving people – denying them basic humanitarian assistance – leads to radicalization. We don’t want to create more terrorists,” he told USA Today in October.