John McCain praises ‘partnership’ with Jack Reed on military policy

Rising influence of RI's senior senator could impact jobs at Newport base, Quonset

WASHINGTON (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. John McCain said Thursday he sees his relationship with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed as “a partnership” now that the two are the top members of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

During an exclusive interview with WPRI.com, McCain provided a status update on how he and Rhode Island’s senior senator have been working together after their first year as the key committee’s top Republican and Democrat.

“I view my relationship with Jack Reed as a partnership,” said McCain, R-Arizona. “We work together, never surprise each other. … We have a partnership, and the only way you can effectively represent the men and women of the military is with a partnership. We also happen to be good friends, which is very helpful – that’s not always the case with a Republican and Democrat.”

“He’s a very honest man. Very assuming,” McCain continued. “And he’s a person that I find we can sit down together and, for the good of the nation, we can resolve differences.”

McCain and Reed gained their current positions after the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans won control of the Senate, giving McCain the chairman’s gavel on Armed Services. The simultaneous retirement of Michigan U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who’d been the top Democrat on the committee for years, allowed Reed to take over his party’s top spot.

The promotion to ranking member put Reed in one of the Senate’s key perches, and gives him significant influence over the country’s national security policy as well as more than a half-trillion dollars in annual Pentagon spending.

While no one doubts McCain has the final say as chairman, he said the Armed Services Committee has a history of bipartisanship that he and Reed are trying to continue.

“The relationship between the chairman and the ranking member often depends on personalities and tradition,” McCain said. “We have a tradition on the Armed Services Committee of partnerships, and that goes all the way back for many years because of the nature of the issues we address.”

In a separate interview with WPRI.com, Reed said becoming the committee’s lead Democrat has involved “a significant commitment of time” on the part of him and his staff. But he said it’s “very gratifying because in some way you’re helping the young men and women of our military service who are doing so much.”

Reed said he and McCain have “a very civil relationship,” and he lavished praise on the former GOP presidential nominee.

“I respect him immensely,” Reed said. “No one has served and sacrificed as much for the country as John McCain. He is an American hero.” He noted that they share the experience of military service, though he emphasized that unlike McCain, who was famously a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he never saw combat.

Reed’s increased sway over military matters could pay dividends for Rhode Island if he can use it to protect defense jobs in the state, particularly at Electric Boat’s facility in Quonset Point and in and around the Newport Naval Station – both of which rely on the federal money allocated by the Armed Services Committee.

“On the final negotiations of the legislation, it usually comes down to the chairman and the ranking member in the House and in the Senate, so the four of us spend a lot of our time with our key staff people working out the final details,” Reed said.

A key priority for Reed continues to be ensuring Congress approves funding to build two Virginia-class submarines a year at Quonset Point, where more than 3,000 employees currently work for Electric Boat. He and McCain both said they expect two subs a year to remain the norm, and they noted Quonset will also be a manufacturing hub for the new Ohio-class submarine replacements that are currently being developed.

“I think that will continue as we transition to the Ohio class, and I’m certainly sure that that will also be part of Rhode Island’s economy,” McCain said.

For the Ohio-class submarine replacements, “the bulk of the work will be done in Rhode Island,” Reed said. “That’s going to account for another increase in employment in the state, and so you’ll have two significant submarine systems that are being built at Electric Boat.”

Aquidneck Island’s defense community is also keeping a nervous eye on the potential for the Pentagon to undertake another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process in the coming years to close and shrink military installations around the country. While no BRAC is currently scheduled, there has been talk of undertaking one later in this decade.

“I think Naval Station Newport is in very good shape, and I think a lot of it is the investments we’ve made and the Navy’s made,” Reed said. He cited the recent ribbon-cutting for a new U.S. Coast Guard facility there as well as work being done at the Naval War College and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He also recalled that officials “worked hard” to secure the C-130J aircraft for the Rhode Island Air National Guard at Quonset.

“Those facilities that are related to the military in Rhode Island have over the last 20 years received significant support in terms of their infrastructure, and that will help immensely,” Reed said.

Asked for his views on the future of Naval Station Newport, McCain said: “I haven’t looked at it a lot, but I see it practically as one of the only naval establishments on the entire Northeast coast. I think it plays an important role.”

“And of course I would mention the Naval War College to me is a revered institution,” he added, later recalling that his own grandfather studied there when he was in the Navy.

Despite their kind words for each other, McCain and Reed have often had major differences when it comes to the use of U.S. military power abroad. Reed voted against both the first and second Iraq wars, while McCain supported both interventions. More recently, they have squared off over how to target ISIS and how to fund war operations.

On the latter dispute, “at the end of the day we came together and supported legislation that fulfills, I think adequately, our obligation to the men and women serving in our military,” McCain said.

“We disagree on some very significant issues,” Reed said. “We’ve had some strong disagreements. But we’ve always strived to keep focused on accomplishing the ultimate goal of the committee and the chairman, which is to pass a reauthorization act to support the men and women in the military services.”

It’s possible that a year from now Reed and McCain could see their roles on the committee reversed. If Democrats retake control of the Senate in November – a possible but not necessarily likely scenario – Reed would become chairman for the first time and McCain would become ranking member, as long as he wins his own re-election race in Arizona. (Reed is not up for re-election until 2020.)

Either way, McCain indicated he expects the pair to continue working well together in the future.

“The nation is under threat. There have been attacks on the United States of America,” McCain said. “Jack Reed and I both understand how critical it is to provide the nation with the kind of defense that it needs, and we have worked closely together. We will continue to work closely together in the face of these existential threats to the United States of America.”

However, before the interview was over, McCain couldn’t resist a joke comparing his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, with Reed’s, the U.S. Army academy at West Point. It’s a frequent topic of sparring between the two, especially around the time of the annual Army-Navy football game.

“The only drawback on Senator Jack Reed is that he’s poorly educated,” McCain quipped. “I’ve tried to upgrade that vacancy in his background, and his poor education that he received somewhere in upstate New York.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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