This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will begin the process of voting in a replacement for John McCain, R-Ariz., the powerhouse figure who chaired the committee from 2015 until his death last month.
His likely successor is Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a former ranking member of the panel who has led the committee as a proxy for McCain since his departure from Capitol Hill in December.
An Army veteran, Inhofe has left his mark on the Pentagon in recent years. He was instrumental in the establishment of U.S. Africa Command and has been a persistent advocate for assigning dedicated troops to the command. In some ways, he sits in opposition to top brass. Senior leaders—including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—see climate change as a global security threat, while Inhofe is one of the Senate’s most outspoken climate-change doubters.
But there is little in his record to suggest that he will assume the same role McCain sought to play in the Trump era: a shadow statesman and often-blistering critic.
A self-proclaimed maverick, McCain nevertheless voted with President Trump more than 80 percent of the time. Still, he occasionally bucked the Republican party in dramatic fashion—for example, striding onto the Senate floor at the eleventh hour to sink the GOP repeal of Obamacare with one dismissive gesture.
In recent years, he played a particularly outsized role in American politics and foreign policy, thanks to his occasional willingness to publicly criticize the president. He often used the gravitas of his gavel to try to shift the direction of U.S. foreign policy under a leader whose first instincts were isolationist. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, he embarked on a whirlwind tour through more than a dozen countries in an effort to reassure jumpy allies that the U.S. was still in their corner. One longtime senior aide said that the several-time presidential candidate saw an important part of his job to be “persuading” and “educating” other policymakers—and the American people.
Whether that perch will remain a platform for blunt advice and criticism of administration foreign policy appears an open question, close watchers of the committee say.
In fact, the Senate is losing two powerful committee chairmen known for their willingness to criticize Trump: Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., announced his retirement earlier this year.
“The fundamental question mark is whether Sen. Inhofe is going to be inclined to elevate his role above and beyond the authorizing and budgetary arcana of that committee to the grand strategy and statesman kind of role that members and chairmen of that committee have often had,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
A close supporter of Trump who represents a state that voted 65 percent for the president in 2016, Inhofe has voted with Trump almost 95 percent of the time. In particular, he has hewed to the administration on a number of sticky foreign-policy issues. He praised Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; earlier this year, he appeared to side with the president’s assessment of North Korea’s desire to hold nuclear talks over national intelligence director Dan Coats’ more skeptical analysis. (Trump was arguing that North Korea was “sincere,” while Coats had told the committee that “hope springs eternal.” Inhofe said that he was “more optimistic” than Coats.)
Inhofe has also shown a willingness to be influenced by the administration’s positions. Although he had first claimed to be opposed to Trump’s proposal for a new branch of the military to protect U.S. interests in orbit—the so-called Space Force—after Vice President Mike Pence formally announced the policy at the Pentagon earlier this month, Inhofe told reporters on Capitol Hill that the administration was “winning him over.”
Arnold Punaro, who was the committee staff director under former chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., brushed aside the notion that the panel’s role as a tough overseer of the administration will change substantively under Inhofe.
Punaro noted that most of the committee’s most important functions—like authorizing the Pentagon’s budget and approving the president’s nominees—will remain the key mechanisms by which Inhofe will be able to exert authority over the administration.
“I think it’s a false narrative,” he said, of the notion that Inhofe will be less adversarial than McCain. “He’s knowledgeable, he’s experienced, he’s served in uniform himself. You can be deferential and supportive but that doesn’t mean 100 percent of the time you’re going to go along with what the administration recommends.”
Another factor that could pull Inhofe away from the president is the fact that the House could change hands in November, complicating conference negotiations on major spending bills and likely forcing any chairman to compromise.
Still, it’s the authority of McCain’s public voice—on issues like NATO, a resurgent Russia, the wisdom of various American conflicts—that seems the most difficult to replicate. In a post-9/11 world that some analysts say has been marked by a congressional abdication to the executive on issues of national security, McCain was a muscular figure who was able to both sway his colleagues and bring administration policy to heel. Although he sometimes frustrated other lawmakers with his intractability, his voice carried weight. Inhofe is known for a more gentle, deferential style than McCain, who was famous for blisteringly blunt public statements and scorching witnesses in public hearings.
Inhofe has publicly suggested that he wants to decentralize power in the committee, ceding more authority to the subcommittee chairmen than they had under McCain.
“We’ve talked a little bit about some of the things I’ve always believed in, and that is a heavier responsibility on subcommittees than we’ve had before, but I hesitate to [comment further] for obvious reasons,” he told reporters on the Hill shortly after McCain’s death.
That dynamic could open up an opportunity for more junior members of the committee with more national profiles than Inhofe—like Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark.—to grow their own influence on foreign-policy issues.
One other key member of the committee who could take up McCain’s mantle is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., McCain’s best friend in the Senate.
Graham, who is an Air Force veteran and former judge advocate, has voted with Trump some 90 percent of the time. But following an emotional tribute to his friend this week on the floor, he vowed to take up his torch. Many of his priorities are adversarial to Trump: pushing for stiffer sanctions on Russia and to “persuade President Trump if you leave Afghanistan, it will blow up in your face.”
“When it came to the Pentagon, [McCain] was a ferocious reformer, and he loved nothing better than getting into the bowels of the budget and finding ways, so we’re going to take that up,” Graham told reporters.
“I talked to him about a month ago, and he said, ‘Boy, you’ve got to keep it going.’”