WASHINGTON – John McCain toiled for 28 years in the Senate before he finally won the chairman’s gavel of the Armed Services Committee last month. Now he’s making up for lost time.
The 78-year-old Arizona Republican strode quickly into Tuesday’s hearing of the committee – the ninth he has had in three weeks, with four more scheduled this week alone – and attempted to rush through approval of Ashton Carter’s confirmation as defense secretary without so much as a formal vote.
“Is there anyone who would like a roll-call vote?” asked McCain. “I don’t know if we need it.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., piped up: “I’d like to be recorded as voting aye.”
McCain sighed and gave an impatient smile. “The clerk will call the roll,” he ordered.
Carter’s confirmation hadn’t been in doubt – McCain signaled weeks ago that he expected easy confirmation – and even the irascible Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined the 25 to 0 tally.
Without a pause, McCain moved on to the next order of business, hearing testimony from a bipartisan panel of experts discussing why, under President Obama’s Pentagon budget request, “the nation’s security is at risk.” The crowd thinned and senators gradually departed, but McCain was still at his post when the hearing ended two hours later.
McCain agrees that he is a man in a hurry.
“Big hurry, a big hurry – really big,” he told me in his office Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not only making up for lost time,” he said, but “I feel in a way this could be a two-year sprint because we know what the numbers are the next time around in the Senate and I also am up for re-election, and don’t think the tea party doesn’t view me as their No. 1 target.”
McCain is also in a hurry because he sees much of the world on fire – “I’ve never seen more turmoil” – and he’s using his new perch as a way to drag the Obama administration, kicking and screaming, into more international leadership. “We’ve got to get out in front,” he said.
His breakneck pace of hearings, bringing in top national-security experts several times a week, are serving as seminars to educate the Senate, the public and the Obama administration. He has taken three international trips in the last month, to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, to Munich, and again to Saudi Arabia for the memorial for King Abdullah. At the end of the second Saudi trip, he landed at Joint Base Andrews at 6 a.m. and was in his seat at 9:30 to chair a hearing with the military chiefs of staff on budget cuts.
McCain, after two unsuccessful presidential campaigns and then eight years in the Senate minority, told me that he’s having the most fun he’s had since his 2000 presidential run. But, more important, he’s using his prominent perch to push a more hawkish foreign policy – with considerable success.
He has been clamoring for Obama to request congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria and Iraq – and now that Obama is moving ahead with such a request, McCain is likely to lead the charge for an expansive authorization of military power. He has put together a bipartisan coalition of senators favoring military aid to Ukraine to help fight Russian separatists – and the Obama administration, which resisted such an approach, appears poised to relent. He has been advocating for much higher Pentagon spending levels – and Obama, in his 2016 budget request, has begun to move in McCain’s direction. McCain has also used his stature, and his gavel, to push for a slower retreat from Afghanistan and a harder line in nuclear negotiations with Iran.
In a sense, McCain has assumed a role once held by Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington state, a hawkish Democrat who inspired a generation of neoconservatives. “I would love to play 1 / 8that 3 / 8 role in the Republican Party,” McCain said, adding that he hopes he can turn the committee into “a movement” for his ideas.
And, borrowing a page from a mentor, the late Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, McCain is using the Armed Services Committee as a virtual think tank to promote those policies.
He has brought in Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Madeleine Albright and a gaggle of retired and current generals and admirals to testify on matters ranging from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay. “Every day that goes by,” McCain said, “you’re never going to be able to do over again.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.