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Inhofe, Reed draw on professional, personal relationship in defense policy debate

Oklahoman Republican, Rhode Island Democrat find common ground

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, left, and ranking member Jack Reed have brought the fiscal 2020 defense authorization to the Senate floor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, left, and ranking member Jack Reed have brought the fiscal 2020 defense authorization to the Senate floor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Maybe the annual Pentagon policy bill would have been popular regardless, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the two members shepherding it on the Senate floor this week, Republican James M. Inhofe and Democrat Jack Reed, work together well as leaders of the Armed Services Committee and enjoy a genuinely deep friendship.

“I don’t think there’s two closer friends than Jack Reed and myself,” said Inhofe, the panel’s chairman.

Ranking member Reed was effusive in praising Inhofe, noting that the two men understand the responsibility of leading the committee overseeing the Pentagon because of their own military service.

“The other factor that helps us immensely is, he’s an Army veteran, I’m an Army veteran. We both understand that what we are doing is about the young men and women of the military of the United States,” Reed told CQ Roll Call. “That gives us a special incentive to work together, and to cooperate.”

The Rhode Island Democrat said that unlike some pairs of foreign policy committee leaders, he and Inhofe have not traveled together extensively, but they have gotten to know each other over decades of serving on the panel.

“He’s a gentleman, and he’s someone who is very sincere in all he does,” Reed said. “We have a relationship in which we might disagree, but we keep everybody — each other, I should say — informed of where we are.”

In separate interviews, both men highlighted the importance of being able to agree to disagree.

“If there are not areas of compromise, then we understand it will come down to a vote, and then we’ll take that vote and move on,” Reed said.

Breaking the mold

Inhofe is among the most conservative members of the Senate, but the Oklahoma Republican is also among the most successful at advancing major legislation.

In an interview last week, Inhofe talked about his ability to forge friendships with some of the most liberal Democrats, “people who are [to] the far, far left of me.”

That was never more obvious than during his years as the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Inhofe famously published a book espousing his views on man-made climate change called, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” and he once brought a snowball on to the Senate floor to needle his Democratic colleagues on whether the planet is warming. 

When it came to the public works part of that committee’s jurisdiction, however, Inhofe had one of the most productive partnerships across the aisle in the entire Senate, with former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the panel’s top Democrat.

“We’ve done the highway bills, we’ve done the chemical bills, we’ve done the water bills, these are the big bills,” Inhofe said. “We are total opposites, but we have a genuine love for each other. And the fact that we have areas where we don’t have anything that, if anything, you can make that unite you, you can make a joke out of it.”

Since taking over as the acting chairman of the Armed Services Committee when Sen. John McCain was battling cancer — he became chairman when the Arizona Republican died — Inhofe has forged a similar type of partnership with Reed.

“Historically, it’s kind of funny because you get into these trenches nobody knows about,” Inhofe said as part of an interview for CQ Roll Call’s Political Theater podcast. “We always start our defense authorization bill in the committee on a Wednesday. Now, don’t ask me why, but it’s always on Wednesday.”

Inhofe then explained that in the last two years, that closed-door markup at the full committee level has been completed by plowing through it in a single day. The process only took six hours this year, largely, it seems, because senators and their staffs had access to material about the committee’s work product early enough for everyone to understand what hot spots might arise.

“You can get things done if you know … where the opposition is, you can really quickly call votes and nobody’s upset about it,” Inhofe said. “They want to make sure they have an opportunity.”

The committee included dozens upon dozens of amendments in the bill that was reported to the floor. (The formal amendment process began Monday evening.) Committee leaders hope that is a reasonable compromise given the time constraints and demand for literally hundreds of amendments to be considered. 

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership who does not sit on Armed Services, said the way Inhofe worked the process should mean there will probably not be “a whole lot of anxiety about not having votes.”

Battles ahead

Inhofe realizes not all senators are going to get what they want.

“We’ve been working on the defense authorization bill in committee for a long time, but it hasn’t been visible to the outsiders,” he said. “Frankly, it makes my life easier if we don’t have to mess with a whole lot of amendments, that would be a whole lot easier.”

But he did encourage his colleagues to be ready. 

“I went early to the committee, and then Mitch McConnell warned them also. He said if you’ve got amendments, get them in now,” Inhofe said. “We have several hundred amendments already that we have done.”

Some senators may protest, and there will be a few contentious floor fights. For instance, Inhofe said a battle over the limitations on military force authorizations was almost guaranteed.

“It’s an unavoidable debate,” he said. “I didn’t say we should have it. I’m just saying it’s unavoidable, so we’re going to have it.”

It was not clear as of Monday, however, if that debate would include a roll call vote.

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tim Kaine of Virginia have been leading the call for such a vote, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said last week it would be a priority for him, given the increased tensions and agitations with Iran.

On Monday, Schumer said on the floor that the chamber should hold off on having such a vote until after this week’s Democratic presidential debates, to ensure the senators running for president are in Washington. 

“One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into a war is to have a robust, open debate, and for Congress to have some say,” the New York Democrat said. 

Regardless, Inhofe is aware there is a bit of a streak to keep going when it comes to the annual defense authorization bill. Supporters want it to  become law for the 59th consecutive year if an agreement can be reached with the Democrat-led House.

“The process has been relatively efficient over all of my years on the committee, but this year was especially efficient and effective. We were able to get a very good bill done. We were able to incorporate amendments,” Reed said.

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