McCain’s absence leaves big hole in Senate

Just a day after the stunning announcement that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and will be absent from Capitol Hill to receive treatment, the feisty Arizona Republican is vowing to return to the Senate quickly.

McCain’s health is critical for President Donald Trump and Senate GOP leaders, who suddenly find themselves in the position of needing McCain’s support very badly, despite the often combative relationship between the president and the 80-year-old McCain.

McCain’s sudden departure leaves a giant hole in the middle of Republican conference. On defense and foreign policy issues, McCain is among the loudest GOP voices, largely based on his own experience as a Vietnam War hero and prisoner of war. A hawkish interventionist utterly convinced of America’s undisputed place as the world’s leader, McCain has pushed to expand the U.S.’s presence overseas, not withdraw from it, which often put him in collision with the Trumpian-Bannon worldview. From Syria to ISIS to Iran to North Korea, McCain has ushed for hardline U.S. policies, including military strikes if necessary.

On other controversial topics — Trump’s behavior, immigration, treatment of terrorism detainees, torture — McCain has been one of the few Republicans willing to speak out. Due to his own stature, McCain has been able to say what others Republicans can’t or won’t.

“Well, John, as you know, is a bigger-than-life force around here on so many issues, and particularly national security issues,” noted Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican. “I think that his absence is going to be felt, we’re going to miss him, we hope he gets back."

With only 52 Republicans, not having McCain in place means Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell loses a dependable vote on advancing a repeal and replace of Obamacare, even as the Kentucky Republican vows to try to bring up the GOP health care bill early next week.

And McCain, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, may not be able to oversee completion of the annual defense authorization bill, which had been expected to be taken up on the Senate floor as early next week.

The Pentagon, too, loses one of its biggest allies in Congress, although one who is not above bashing admirals and generals when he feels they deserve it. McCain has long supported getting rid of the 2011 budget caps and adding tens of billions of dollars to the defense budget. That’s in line with what Trump wants to do as well.

In a statement Wednesday, McCain vowed to return to the Senate as soon as possible and thanked all his well-wishers. “I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” McCain said on Twitter.

Then McCain was, well, McCain. His office issued a statement bashing the Trump administration for reportedly deciding to end the program to arm the anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move favored by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” McCain declared. “Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted.”

McCain also called some friends to tell them to stop worrying about him and get on with their jobs.

“To my good friend John McCain, you asked me how he’s doing. He has called me three times this morning. No more woe is me. He is yelling at me to buck up. So I’m gonna buck up,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, at a news conference on Thursday.

But GOP leaders are keenly aware of how much they need McCain right now.

“I hope he’s able to make it back next week,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “It’s a shock, a shock to all of us.”

Cornyn said he expected that Senate Republicans would still push ahead with the health-care vote next week, despite the fact McCain is almost certain to miss it.

“We can always come back to it, if it’s not successful, if we fail by one vote,” Cornyn added. “We can come back to it when he is available."

Besides the presidency — McCain was decisively beaten by former President Barack Obama in 2008 — the Armed Services chairmanship was the job to which McCain most aspired.

McCain finally got the gavel in January 2015, after 34 years in the Senate, following the GOP rout of Democrats the previous November. He wasted no time in putting his stamp on the U.S. military, unveiling some of the most ambitious reforms to the Defense Department in decades, including a complete overhaul of the Pentagon’s acquisitions office. An extended absence would mean McCain is unable to see some of these reforms through to implementation.

The Arizona Republican has been sharply critical of some of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons programs, including the F-35 aircraft and some Navy ships. He worries that U.S. defense spending goes to just a handful of giant defense contractors, who use their huge lobbying and influence networks to win ever more defense dollars.

Passage of the annual defense authorization bill — one of the few remaining bipartisan traditions in the Congress — sets the budget and expenditure for the U.S. military. It is the highest priority for the Armed Services Committees in both the House and Senate.

“I think, frankly, if the chairman had been here, we would have moved very quickly to the [defense authorization] bill,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), top Democrat on the Armed Services panel. “He wanted to do it, and we were ready to work together to do it.”

Reed had nothing but praise for the way McCain has run what is among the most bipartisan committees in the Senate.

“[McCain] and I have a very good working relationship,” added Reed, a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division. “We disagree sometimes, but we always try to keep each other informed as to what’s happening. He’s been very gracious to me.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has taken over the Armed Services panel in McCain’s absence, said of the chairman that he will “wait for his instructions. And I am sure he will have some ideas.”

“I definitely want you to report accurately that I will wait for his instructions,” Inhofe repeated.

Yet Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of Armed Services panel, hinted that Senate leaders may just have to eventually move the bill.

"I think that first off, we just hope he fares very well in the treatment. And I know that if anybody is going to come back and try to move the [National Defense Authorization Act], it’s going to be John McCain,” Tillis said. “But I think that at some point in time, you’d have to make a decision of how you could move the bill. It came out of the committee with strong bipartisan support. That’s a testament to his leadership … There [are] some timing-related things in there where if the schedule were to stretch, we just have to take a look at the options."

Ted Hesson and Austin Wright contributed to this report.

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