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McCain’s Role in Party, Senate Gets New Test This Week

'Senators must choose a side'

Republican Sen. John McCain faces two big fights this election year, including the one for his seat in Arizona. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Republican Sen. John McCain faces two big fights this election year, including the one for his seat in Arizona. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Eight years ago, Sen. John McCain stood for the Republican party. This week, he will find how much his party still stands with him.  

The Arizona senator will be shepherding floor debate on a defense policy bill that touches on such politically charged issues including women in the draft and closing the terror detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In a period when many GOP lawmakers are intent on cutting budgets, he will ask them to support funding for defense spending. “Senators must choose a side,” he has said, in his usual combative style.  

All of this comes as he faces the toughest re-election bid in his three-decade Senate career and as he reluctantly supports a candidate for president whom he has openly disparaged, and vice versa. McCain, who carried the GOP banner in the 2008 election, finds his political home changing around him.  

His closest ally, fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, differs with him, at least in public, on the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, as does his longtime top aide and coauthor Mark Salter; both are in the ‘Never Trump’ crowd.  

This week’s floor fight could demonstrate whether he still retains his influence on issues he’s best known for in Washington.  

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who has sparred with McCain over the Army secretary’s nomination , says he does: “He’s probably the voice for the Republican Party, and for that matter, the Senate on affairs with regards to our national security.”  

“The standing commentary is he is more of a senior statesman,” at this point, Roberts added. “But I can assure you that if he has a burr under his saddle, he’s going to let you know about it.”

His Life’s Work

As Armed Services chairman and scion of a famous Navy family whose experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam helped shape his political legacy, McCain considers the National Defense Authorization Act his top priority. Since January, his committee or its subcommittees have met 50 times, often to hear from experts about the Pentagon’s needs.  

“He is singularly focused to make sure that it [passes], because that’s when you really affect policy,” said GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, also of Arizona.  

“He’s a hawk, but he’s also a reformer,” Graham said. “From commissaries to how you buy major weapons systems, everything has been on the table with John, and he’s made this his life’s work.”  

The $602 billion bill would authorize Department of Defense programs and Department of Energy programs relating to national security.   

McCain plans to introduce an amendment to increase defense spending by $17 billion, and said he is going to “shame” senators over not including additional visas for Afghan civilians who served as interpreters for U.S. troops.

A Two-Front War

At the same time, he’s in a surprisingly tough re-election campaign against Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick .   

At 79, McCain is seeking his sixth term. He was first elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986. He has easily won re-election ever since and was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.  

But this year is different, in part due to Trump, the presumptive Republican standard-bearer. The billionaire businessman has insulted McCain over his wartime capture and used harsh rhetoric against Mexican immigrants that has complicated McCain’s relationship with a key voting bloc in Arizona. McCain is a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform.  

Trump said in July that McCain, who was tortured in a North Vietnamese prison for five years, was “not a war hero” and went on to say “I like people who weren’t captured.”  

McCain recently said on CNN’s “State of the Union ” that Trump should apologize to POWs for the latter comment. He has also been critical of Trump’s call for the enhanced torture techniques  that McCain has always said not only violate international norms but don’t work.  

McCain has said he will support his party’s nominee, but was less than enthusiastic when asked at a recent Brookings Institution event how Trump’s policies would affect national security.  

“Obviously, I have significant disagreements with Mr. Trump on a number of issues,” he said May 19. “I’m not exactly sure what some of his views are because sometimes he makes contradictory statements.”  

As McCain walks the line between questioning some of Trump’s policies and supporting his candidacy, Kirkpatrick continues to tie him to the presumptive nominee.  

On Feb. 29, Kirkpatrick’s campaign released an ad, “Trump,” that not only criticized McCain for saying he would support him if he is the nominee, but went so far as to question his patriotism.   

“There was a time when country mattered more than his political party,” her ad’s narrator says, as the commercial flashes an image of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan ‘Country First.’ “But 30 years in Washington have changed John McCain.”  

Another ad from Kirkpatrick’s campaign highlights McCain’s reluctance to call on Trump to retract statements that illegal immigrants are rapists, murderers and drug dealers. Several polls show a tight race. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates the race as Favored Republican .  

Yet even in a party that has changed significantly even since he was the GOP nominee eight years ago, McCain is still getting some needed help back home from his fellow Republican senators. Over the recess this month, five freshman , three of whom are on Armed Services, campaigned for him in Arizona.  

McCain is counting on these allies this week as he brings the defense authorization bill to the floor.  

Where once he could turn to like-minded colleagues, such as Virginia’s John Warner or Indiana’s Richard Lugar, he now faces a GOP caucus with several new senators more intent on cutting costs than in building up the armed forces. And some of the players who have been around the longest, including Pat Roberts of Kansas and Richard Shelby of Alabama, have clashed with McCain.  

The Armed Services chairman has reached out to new recruits, bringing freshmen who are military veterans onto his committee and taking them with him on overseas trips and summits, said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a Marine Corps reservist. “He’s been very supportive of us,” Sullivan said. And McCain has worked to bring the full committee’s support to the defense policy bill.  

This week we’ll know more about how well that strategy is working.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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