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Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans have a new look for the 116th

5 GOP freshmen got spots on the panel, coveted by lawmakers from states with defense industry presences

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., attends the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for William P. Barr, nominee for attorney general, in Hart Building on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., attends the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for William P. Barr, nominee for attorney general, in Hart Building on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As the Senate Armed Services Committee sets about its work in the 116th Congress, a handful of new faces will help shape the national security debate on the Republican side of the dais.

Five GOP freshmen have landed spots on the panel, an unusually high number for a committee that is particularly coveted among members whose states have military or defense industry presences.

The new GOP members are Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Kevin Cramer of North Dakota; Josh Hawley of Missouri; Martha McSally of Arizona; and Rick Scott of Florida.

Two of those — Hawley and Scott — defeated Democratic members of the Armed Services panel in November’s midterms, so their appointment means a certain amount of continuity for their state’s interests.

Florida is home to numerous military installations, including the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. Special Forces. In addition to three military bases, Missouri boasts a Boeing manufacturing plant that recently nabbed a $9.2 billion contract to build the Air Force’s new trainer jet.

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For five new Republican senators to join the committee, five GOP members had to leave.

Departures include Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who had been appointed to fill out the unexpired term of late Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who died in August 2018, retired.

McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, replaced Kyl, both in the Senate and on the committee, extending Arizona’s decades-old streak of having a member on the Armed Service Committee that dates back to Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was chairman of the panel in the 1980s. Arizona is home to a number of military assets, including Luke and Davis Monthan Air Force bases and the Army’s massive Yuma Proving Ground.

The Armed Services seat is a win for Cramer, whose home state includes Minot and Grand Forks Air Force bases. Tennessee, meanwhile, has not had a seat on Armed Services in several years. It is home to several smaller military installations.

Graham told CQ that he left in part because he knew that serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would take up more of his time. As it was, he had needed a waiver to serve on Armed Services in addition to Judiciary and Appropriations.

“And you had some newly elected senators who really wanted to be on the committee, and I’ve been there a while,” Graham said. “Give them a shot.”

Another cause for turnover may be a loss of the perceived stature of the committee. Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said seats on Senate Armed Services are less prestigious today than they have been over the last 30 years.

“There is a general sense, especially in a post-[Budget Control Act] era, that the Defense Department is ‘just another mouth to feed’ from the federal trough and one priority in a growing list of important issues competing for the attention of members,” she said.

Additionally, the person holding the gavel can influence the rank-and-file’s desire to serve on the committee, she said.

“If the chairman is going to take a national and global view, and has the credibility and determination to back it up, members know it is an exciting place to spend their limited time and try to change policy for the better,” she said. “Sen. McCain took this approach and had a big, bold vision for the committee, which was exciting for members anxious to affect policy.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s current chairman, lacks McCain’s star power, penchant for upending Pentagon policy and muscular approach to foreign affairs.

Democrats have three new members — or rather, two new members and the return of a previous member. Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Doug Jones of Alabama are new to the committee, while Joe Manchin III of West Virginia returns after a two-year hiatus.

“I loved it when I was on it, I tried to stay on,” Manchin said. “I had to give up Intel to get it.”

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