Arizona Republic September 19, 2006
Could McCain juggle '08 run, Senate panel?
By Billy House
WASHINGTON - Running for president is time-consuming and demanding.
So is running one of the Senate's most powerful, high-profile committees.
Come January, Sen. John McCain likely will be doing both.
The Arizona Republican says he will decide whether to make a bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination after this fall's elections. He also is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee in four months from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who must step aside because of a six-year chairmanship term limit.
Overseeing the committee while crisscrossing the nation in a campaign for the Oval Office would be more than a test of McCain's logistical skills. It would also put a spotlight on his leadership abilities, provide a gauge to measure his political dexterity and test his hawkish positions on Iraq.
"If things continue to spin out of control on the war, any Republican running for president is going to have a tough time," national pollster John Zogby said. "But running and being the chairman of the Armed Services Committee may require a real Kabuki dance."
At the same time, the chairmanship could provide McCain a stage on which to justify his unyielding support for the war and to stake out other stances in the national security realm, said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration and a foreign policy and defense analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
McCain's teaming with Warner last week to challenge President Bush's plan to allow tougher interrogations of terror suspects could be a foreshadowing of the platform that the chairmanship could provide McCain's presidential bid.
The senator also could seize on the committee post to suggest how a McCain administration would deal with matters such as Iraq, Afghanistan and even disasters like Hurricane Katrina, say Korb and others.
"It's a high-profile platform. I think it could be good for him," said David Mark, a political analyst and former editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine.
"As long as he doesn't waffle."
There is little history of anyone campaigning for president while serving as chairman of the modern-day Senate Armed Services Committee, the product of a 1946 reorganization of the former Military Affairs Committee and Naval Affairs Committee.
Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., ran as a regional candidate in 1952. But he did not get his party's nomination.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, then-committee Chairman Sen. Sam Nunn, a hawkish Democratic senator from Georgia, also considered a bid for the White House.
Ultimately, Nunn cited his duties on the Armed Services panel as one of his reasons for not running in 1988. Several years later, it was his high-profile opposition to the first Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991 that, in the afterglow of military success for the first President Bush, helped to sink Nunn's 1992 presidential ambitions.
There may be lessons for McCain in Nunn's story, Korb said.
"Events will force you to take stands you may not want to take in a campaign, one way or the other," he said. "It does make a difficult job (chairman) more difficult."
McCain, the second-most-senior Republican on the committee behind Warner, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Navy aviator who survived 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Whether he assumes the gavel in January as the committee's 12th chairman - Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater was the seventh, serving from 1986-1987 - is contingent on whether the GOP maintains control of the Senate this fall.
If it does, McCain has indicated he would accept the chairmanship of the committee that now has 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
McCain and his staff declined requests for comment on his future as Armed Services chairman, a position for which even leading Democrats on the panel consider McCain to be eminently qualified.
"I think, first of all, as the chairman, the most important (attribute) is command of the subject. And obviously, John McCain has a complete and comprehensive command of the subject," said Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
If the last campaign is any guide, a senator running for president spends a lot of time away from his job.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and his 2004 running mate, then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, were the Senate's top two vote missers in 2004, according to Congress-wide tracking by the nonpartisan Congressional Observer Publications.
And neither was head of a Senate committee, which leads some to wonder whether McCain has the time to be a campaigner and a chairman.
"Will he be too busy running for president?" asks John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonpartisan defense policy think tank.
"There are things his staff can do in his absence," Pike said. "But there's an awful lot to being the chairman of the committee that requires the senator to actually show up if he's going to make a difference."
This year, the Armed Services Committee has held at least 25 full hearings; that does not include subcommittee hearings. Attendance records were not available.
McCain already has a history of missing Senate votes while running for president. When he sought but did not get the 2000 GOP nomination, McCain missed 133 of the 374 roll-call votes in 1999, tops in the Senate, and 66 of the 298 votes in 2000, tops that year, too, according to the vote-tracking data.
But not everyone is so concerned about whether McCain can serve as committee chairman and run for president.
"In the immediate time and circumstance, I don't see it as a problem," Kennedy said. "I don't foresee any problems in the early months."
And eventually, if McCain remains a viable candidate in the presidential race, he could take a leave of absence from the chairmanship and choose an interim successor. One option may be Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the third-most-senior Republican on the committee.
"I'm sure he will juggle the schedule so that he is a very active and involved chairman at the same time he is pursuing his presidential campaign, if he decides to go that route," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican member of the committee.
A new approach?
The committee and its six subcommittees have a wide range of responsibilities that, along with the House counterpart, puts it right in the middle of war-funding decisions and other congressional oversight of the nation's military. That includes the Department of Defense, military construction and research, benefits for members of the military and other defense-policy matters.
As chairman, McCain would oversee the closed-door crafting of the annual defense spending authorization bill, one of a handful of lawmakers with control over one of the largest parts of the federal budget. The defense authorization bill for fiscal 2006 alone exceeds $440 billion, and all defense spending accounts for about 20 percent of the total federal budget of about $2.7 trillion.
McCain is widely expected to be more proactive than has Warner in going after powerful defense industry giants and in scrutinizing the awarding of defense contracts and deals, along with special earmarks. He has made clear that federal-procurement reform is high on his agenda, say defense analysts and congressional sources.
"He'll run Armed Services Committee different that what it is now," said Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, a Democrat on the committee.
But how the committee might otherwise change under McCain is more often described as a difference in style than in substance.
There is a lot of agreement and comity between McCain and Warner, as shown in their teaming up to take on Bush's plan to redefine U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions' standards for the treatment of prisoners.
But McCain is also seen as someone who will more frequently and more aggressively use his chairmanship stake out his positions in the national security realm and to underscore that he is someone who can get things done in Washington.
That includes more aggressively challenging the Bush administration on the conduct of the war in Iraq, Korb says.
McCain has repeatedly clashed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, saying he has "no confidence" in the secretary's leadership. He also has argued against withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, being at the forefront of those urging the administration to commit even more troops there.
But some McCain detractors say the senator has been sending mixed messages about his views on the war. Some that have been keeping tabs on his war comments, such as the Senate Majority Project, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic organization, accuse the senator of Monday-morning quarterbacking, glossing over his own early rosy predictions, and even double-talk. Such scrutiny would likely intensify if he were to become a candidate and chairman.
"He says he supports the president, but not the secretary of Defense; he wants more troops but then says increasing them isn't politically possible. He criticizes the Bush administration for not being honest about the cost of war, even though he thought we'd be greeted as liberators, too," said Christy Setzer of the Senate Majority Project.
McCain told the Financial Times in June that when he rises to chairman of the Armed Services Committee he will seek to move things toward a better direction in Iraq.
"I think we will obviously have hearings, and we will try to analyze the problems that exist and the remedies" for it, McCain said.
No sitting member of Congress has been elected president since then-Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Whether the demands of Senate Armed Services chairmanship will hinder McCain's chances to become the first since then is a topic that political experts and members of Congress disagree on.
But they do agree that an increasingly unpopular war will likely be a major issue in two years.
And just as Nunn before him, McCain will be forced to deal with the ramifications of the positions he takes not only as a senator but also as Armed Services chairman.
Other potential 2008 hopefuls, such as Kerry and his former running mate Edwards, already have been calling for setting a deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
And comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam are becoming more frequent. One leading Republican senator on defense matters, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is among those who have recently suggested the Iraq war is starting to resemble that earlier conflict.
McCain's backing of the Bush administration's determination to stay in Iraq may be helping him to win over wary conservative Republicans. But it also got him booed during a speech at the New School in New York in June.
And public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline. A CNN poll this month said that 58 percent of Americans oppose the Iraq war; 53 percent don't even regard it as part of the war on terror. Unless that trend is reversed, McCain could face significant political risks if he does advocate an escalation of American troops in Iraq, especially from a position as chairman of the Armed Services committee, warns pollster Zogby.
"He'd have to make some difficult decisions," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
But Collins of Maine said she believes that is one of McCain's strongest attributes.
"I think one of the characteristics of Senator McCain that people find very appealing is that he does say what he thinks, even if it isn't in accord with the popular opinion of the moment," she said. "I think people like that about him, even if they don't agree with it. I think they respect him for it."
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