Inhofe poised to take over McCain’s powerful Senate role

Inhofe poised to take over McCain’s powerful Senate role
© Greg Nash

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeAllies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency MORE (R-Okla.) is poised to take the helm of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee following the death of Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMellman: Where are good faith and integrity? GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech MORE (R-Ariz.).

No official announcements have been made about McCain’s successor, but Inhofe, as the senior Republican, has led the committee as acting chairman since McCain returned home to Arizona to receive treatment for brain cancer.

During that time, Inhofe has insisted McCain was still the one calling the shots and that he was leading the committee as McCain’s proxy.

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As chairman, Inhofe will play a leading role in overseeing U.S. defense policy, including as one of the key crafters of the annual defense policy legislation that does everything from specifying how many fighter jets the military can buy to banning military-to-military relations with Russia.

As a supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall MORE, Inhofe is expected to hew closely to the president’s agenda.

Inhofe declined to comment on his priorities Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate to do so before he is officially chairman.

"It’s not really appropriate to talk about,” Inhofe said. “We’ve talked a little bit about some of the things I’ve always believed in, and that is a heavier responsibility on subcommittees than we’ve had before, but I hesitate to [comment further] for obvious reasons.”

Inhofe added that he expects an official decision on the chairmanship next Tuesday.

Other senators, too, have been reluctant to talk about their expectations of Inhofe’s leadership while memorials for McCain are ongoing.

“I think this week we should concentrate on paying our respects to John McCain,” committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedPapering over climate change impacts is indefensible Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy GOP chairman: US military may have to intervene in Venezuela if Russia does MORE (D-R.I.) said Tuesday when asked about Inhofe.

Inhofe’s statements and actions as acting chairman, though, provide some clues on how he will run the committee differently than McCain.

McCain frequently used hearings to excoriate witnesses on accountability issues such as massive cost overruns on acquisition programs and a lack of progress in wars such as Afghanistan.

Inhofe has been more deferential to witnesses. For example, at a recent confirmation hearing, he ended by telling the nominees that he’s “never seen a panel of more qualified people.”

In recent years, McCain also used the megaphone being chairman afforded him to challenge Trump’s foreign policy and defense moves.

Inhofe, though, is a proud Trump supporter. In a meeting with defense reporters in June, Inhofe talked about his support for Trump starting when he was asked to talk to Trump about military issues during the campaign.

“I’m a fan of his,” Inhofe said at the time. “If this had been two years ago when we had 17 Republicans running for president, he’d be the last one I’d think about. And that all changed on Oct. 9 two years ago. He called me up, and I didn’t even know him, and he said, ‘I’d like to visit with you. Will you come by and see me tomorrow?’ ”

Inhofe has sided with Trump on sticky foreign policy issues. At a March committee hearing, when Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsOvernight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall Is Putin attacking Sanders, Harris and Warren to help Trump? Dems demand briefing, intel on North Korea nuclear talks MORE expressed skepticism on North Korea’s intentions for talks, Inhofe replied that he was “more optimistic” than Coats.

He’s also shown a capacity to be swayed on an issue based on Trump’s position. For example, Inhofe previously opposed the idea of a separate branch of the military for space. But after Vice President Pence’s speech on Space Force this month, Inhofe told reporters the administration is “winning him over.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said anyone would have a difficult time stepping into leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee after McCain.

“Even though Inhofe’s experienced and serious, it’s sort of like rebuilding the Yankees after Babe Ruth retires or the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan,” he said. “At some point you’re comparing somebody who achieved near-god status to a mere mortal.”

The most successful Armed Services chairmen in the past have been willing to tackle the most difficult strategic issues of the day, such as whether to withdraw from the Vietnam War or keep forces in Europe after the Cold War, O’Hanlon said.

O’Hanlon said he’s not convinced yet that Inhofe has the inclination to do that, particularly if it means confronting Trump.

“To the extent that Inhofe sees his main job as supporting Trump, then that is exactly what McCain wasn’t, not only because of this particular relationship but because McCain understood checks and balances, separation of powers and the need for Congress to have some big separate strategic voices on foreign policy,” he said, stressing he was not trying to disparage Inhofe.

“To the extent Inhofe is willing to do that, that he’s willing to now reassess his own role, then perhaps it can work out," he added.

Arnold Punaro, former staff director of the Armed Services Committee under former Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), said tough oversight of the Pentagon is baked into the culture of the committee.

As such, Punaro said he does not see that changing under Inhofe’s leadership, despite Inhofe's and McCain’s differences and the fact that McCain was one of the committee’s “most accomplished, powerful and consequential” chairmen.

“Sen. Inhofe doesn’t have the same operating style as John McCain, but nobody did,” Punaro said. “Each of the chairmen brought different strengthens and different operating styles, but a lot of the fundamentals of the way the committee operates goes back to the early days of the committee.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamActing Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange Five takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump FBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it MORE (R-S.C.), a committee member who was McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, said he promised his friend the panel would uphold his legacy of tough oversight.

“When it came to the Pentagon he was a ferocious reformer, and he loved nothing more than getting into the bowels of the budget and finding waste,” Graham told reporters Tuesday. “So we’re going to have to take that up. That's one of my promises to him. We talked about a month ago. He said, ‘Boy, you got to keep it going.'"