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 ReedDems demand access to interpreters at Trump's meetings with Putin Overnight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing 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 KaineMcConnell: Senate will not recess if government still shutdown Kaine threatens to object to Senate leaving for recess Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks 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 ThornberryDems seek House panel's support to block military funds for Trump border wall Syria too complex to make decisions in 280 characters … even for a president The Hill's Morning Report — Back to the drawing board as shutdown reaches 19 days 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 FischerErnst elected to Senate GOP leadership This week: Congress starts lame-duck with leadership fight Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle 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.”