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Lobbyists’ Motto for the Panel: Be Prepared

The Senate Armed Services Committee is not for the faint of heart.

That’s how defense lobbyists describe the panel, which is responsible for overseeing the nation’s military, the space program and nuclear energy issues. Led by strong-willed senior Members and staffed by no-nonsense ex-military personnel, the committee requires defense lobbyists to prepare heavily for pitches on their clients’ behalf.

But even after intense preparation, don’t expect to always walk away happy, some lobbyists say — particularly when dealing with ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“It’s hard to deal with the Senate Armed Services minority staff because whatever they say or do will be overridden by McCain and his close associates. … They’re not much interested in facts and they don’t care much about what industry thinks,” a defense lobbyist grumbled privately. “Even if you get an audience, it’s generally not an acceptable exchange, and it’s more of a lecture than anything else. … They’re not in listening mode.”

Defense lobbyists bringing business before the committee these days say the tenures of McCain and Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are marked contrasts to their recent predecessors, such as former Chairmen John Warner (R-Va.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who were considered more open to the suggestions of defense firms.

“They would listen to industry,” a retired defense lobbyist said.

A defense lobbyist said the disparity is particularly acute when dealing with the committee’s top Republican.

“Universally, you’ll find that people find the majority staff more accommodating than the minority staff,” the source said. “That’s very regrettable and a direct reflection of McCain. … It’s never been that way, but it certainly is now.”

Another defense lobbyist, who also declined to be named, said, “McCain is not seen as a friend of the defense industry,” an apparent peculiarity, the source said, because of how reliant the Department of Defense is on Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other large defense firms for its wares.

“How unusual is it that the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee is not seen as a friend of industry?” the source asked. “He doesn’t really engage with the community, and he sees the community as an enemy.”

The lobbyists’ complaints notwithstanding, some government watchdog groups and critics of the military and defense contractors aren’t complaining that key members of the panel are hard on the industry. And McCain, a former Congressional liaison for the Pentagon, is unapologetic for his actions on the committee.

“I have to do what I think is right,” he said in an interview.

One industry lobbyist noted that there are the stylistic differences between McCain and the No. 2 Republican on the committee, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who apparently is friendlier to the defense industry.

“You also have a conflict on the top on the Senate side between McCain and Inhofe,” the source said. “Inhofe is much more reasonable and rational, especially when it comes to earmarks and Congress’ role in the defense budget process. And McCain is not.”

Despite the grumblings about leadership, defense industry sources say the overwhelming majority of Armed Services aides are highly competent and earnest. Defense lobbyists also warn that winning over the panel is only half the battle because appropriators, too, must be convinced of a project’s worth before the check is written.

“For the most part, the staff on the Senate Armed Services Committee are capable and talented people,” the source said. “They have a lot of experience, and for the most part they know a lot of really technical things, weapons systems, what’s right and what’s wrong, why yours is better, more important, whether it needs more money or not.”

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.

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