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McCain Absence Felt Well Beyond Health Care

Defense, immigration are among his top priorities

Arizona Sen. John McCain frequently finds himself at the center of high policy debates. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Sen. John McCain frequently finds himself at the center of high policy debates. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The effect of John McCain’s absence from the Senate goes well beyond the vote-counting on health care.

The Arizona Republican has long been in the middle of major legislative battles, always willing to mix it up with his colleagues and spar with reporters in the Capitol’s hallways. (Few senators would video-bomb a CNN correspondent during a live shot.)

McCain has been home in Arizona following surgery and a brain cancer diagnosis.

If McCain had been around after news broke of a Trump administration decision to stop assistance to Syrian opposition forces, everyone in earshot of the Senate basement would have heard about it.

Instead, McCain fired a shot at the administration from thousands of miles away.

“If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted,” the senator said Thursday. “The administration has yet to articulate its vision for Syria beyond the defeat of ISIL, let alone a comprehensive approach to the Middle East,” he added, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.

Still involved

Before and after the formal diagnosis, McCain was working the phones with fellow senators. Before lunchtime Thursday, he had already spoken with his friend and fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina three times.

“No more ‘Woe is me, Lindsey.’ He’s yelling at me to buck up,” Graham told reporters. “So, I’m going to buck up.”

McCain’s treatment, which could involve both chemotherapy and radiation to try to prevent a recurrence of an aggressive, malignant brain tumor, may mean that he comes and goes from the Senate in the coming months.

But Graham expects the longtime senator will be fired up when he does return.

“I ask one thing of the good Lord. Just give him a chance for what time he’s got left and I’ve got left to be relevant. I think John is a force … that is unique to him,” Graham said.

The South Carolina senator spoke at length about McCain at a news conference to mark the unveiling of the newest version of immigration legislation known as the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

Graham said it was McCain, during the Arizonan’s 2000 presidential campaign, who first got the Palmetto State senator involved in immigration policy despite the demographics of his home turf.

“The good news for me is, I do well with Hispanics. The bad news for me? You can fit them all in one room,” Graham said of his home state. “Not a big Hispanic population.”

Graham also said McCain might focus more on issues that have been longstanding priorities. 

“Going forward, he’s excited, quite frankly, about getting a second chance to finish things that have been stuck,” Graham said. “When he comes back here, I hope he’ll talk about immigration. I hope we’ll listen to him.”

Armed Services work

McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had finished work on the panel’s version of a fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill shortly before McCain was treated for the reported blood clot and the subsequently revealed tumor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had included the defense authorization measure on a list of potential business for the run-up to the August recess, but McCain’s absence may change that.

“I think, frankly, had the chairman been here, we would have moved very quickly to the NDAA bill because he wanted to do it, and we were ready to work together and do it,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel.

As of Thursday afternoon, Reed had yet to speak with McCain since his diagnosis was announced, but he expressed optimism about the chairman’s return, as well as a hope that Republican leadership would be consulting with McCain about the way forward for the defense policy bill.

Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe would likely be in line to pick up some of McCain’s work overseeing floor debate on the defense bill, should the Senate go forward without him in the chamber. Inhofe has been the Armed Services panel’s ranking member and has experience managing complex legislation, such as transportation reauthorization legislation he worked on when he was chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He worked well with the top Democrat on that panel at the time, California’s Barbara Boxer

“Given his kind of indomitable approach to all things, challenges, I expect he’ll be back,” Reed said of McCain. “I hope he is.”

While the two service academy graduates have policy disagreements, Reed said McCain has always kept him informed about what was happening, and worked to maintain the traditional bipartisan spirit of the Armed Services Committee.

The committee did advance a slew of military promotions and other generally noncontroversial nominees before senators left Thursday, even with the chairman across the country.