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As Head Of Armed Services Committee, McCain Gets A Bigger Bullhorn

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

John McCain was a prisoner of war. He's a longtime Republican senator from Arizona. He made Sarah Palin a household name and turned maverick into a staple of the political lexicon. Well, now, a new role. When Congress returns in January, McCain will lead the Senate Armed Services Committee, which deals with everything from the Pentagon's budget to the war against the so-called Islamic state. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: When McCain takes the gavel of the Senate Armed Services Committee from retiring Senator Carl Levin, he'll not only have more ability to shape the committee's work, the post also gives him a megaphone. Roger Zakheim is a former Republican staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.

ROGER ZAKHEIM: He will be not only the person asking the questions, he will be the producer, he'll be director and he'll be the star actor. He controls all of it. Every time he decides to have a hearing on whatever issue he wants, and because the Department of Defense is so broad, there's very little that he can't get into.

SUMMERS: To understand what the committee will look like with McCain as chair, just look at the way he's participated as a member. It's not uncommon to hear him get agitated with witnesses who he thinks haven't answered questions well enough. When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was before the committee for his confirmation hearing last year, he got the McCain treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You stand by those comments, Senator Hagel?

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them. And...

MCCAIN: You stand by - were you right?

HAGEL: Well...

MCCAIN: Were you correct in your assessment?

HAGEL: Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to work that out, but I'll...

MCCAIN: The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the search.

SUMMERS: McCains's personal experiences are also likely to color the way he runs the committee. McCain came to national attention for the five years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He later worked as the Navy's Senate liaison before being elected to Congress.

Earlier this month, he forcefully condemned the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation tactics. He called waterboarding an exquisite form torture. While most Republicans criticize the Senate Intelligence Committee for releasing the report, McCain, who's known for his willingness to work across party lines, had nothing but praise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCAIN: I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it.

SUMMERS: Come January, McCain has said his top priority will be to roll back the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. But he's also likely to continue to focus on military spending, particularly on the acquisitions process, which he says has been subject to far too many cost overruns. Gordon Adams worked on Pentagon budgets under President Bill Clinton.

ERIC ADAMS: If the Pentagon's wasting money on a system, you're going to hear from John McCain, and you'll hear long and loud and hard.

SUMMERS: McCain is known for taking to the Senate floor to publicly slam weapons programs that have gone over budget, like the Air Force's F-35 and F-22 fighters. He's called one a hangar queen and says the other is a scandal and a tragedy. McCain's fervor for eliminating cost overruns has some in the defense industry concerned. Michigan Senator Carl Levin is the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: They ought to be concerned about the cost overruns. And that's no reason that they should worry about getting a fair hearing, but in terms of going after cost overruns, he's going to go after them. He always has. We've done a lot of work together.

SUMMERS: Even McCain himself says contractors are right to be a little wary.

MCCAIN: Everybody should be worried because we're going to make fixes that are absolutely necessary.

SUMMERS: Exactly what kind of fixes McCain has his mind will be seen quickly when lawmakers return to Washington in January. One of the first tasks on the committee's list is confirmation hearings for Ashton Carter as Secretary of Defense. Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story should have stated that in addition to being a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Roger Zakheim has worked as a lobbyist for some defense contractors. The connections between Zakheim and other experts at think tanks and the corporations or interest groups that also pay them is detailed in this New York Times report.