McKeon Takes Armed Services Slot as Work Begins

Rep. Howard McKeon (Calif.), a conservative, Mormon lawmaker from Southern California who has never served in the military, will debut this week as one of the leading House GOP voices on national security.

McKeon was tapped last week by House Republican leaders to replace Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) as ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. McHugh has been nominated to be secretary of the Army.

McKeon takes over as the panel this week marks up the massive defense authorization bill, which often can be a forum for partisan spats over national security policy and military spending.

“This is an important time of the year, no doubt about it,— said McKeon, a nine-term lawmaker who has served since 1995 on what became the Armed Services Committee. He said he would “draw on the experience and expertise of the staff— in writing the defense bill.

This year’s defense authorization debate could highlight partisan differences over cuts for several major weapons programs, the closing of the facility for military detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the curtailing of a missile defense shield. The debate will also be a chance for House Republicans to criticize the new administration’s strategy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McKeon has said his “first priority— would be to guarantee troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have the equipment and other resources they need. He pledged to “work with my Republican colleagues to make certain our priorities are addressed, which include restoring funding for missile defense, reaching a resolution to keep Guantánamo terrorist detainees off U.S. soil, and maintaining our military superiority for today’s needs and tomorrow’s threats.—

Over nearly two decades, McKeon has established a conservative record in Congress. But he doesn’t have the hard-edged reputation of the panel’s most recent Republican chairman, former Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), a fierce hawk and ally of the defense industry.

McKeon seems more likely to follow in the footsteps of McHugh, who pushed GOP national security issues but often found common ground with committee Democrats.

Like McHugh, McKeon is a close ally of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he succeeded as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in early 2006. He’s also known as a formidable fundraiser and was president of the1993 Republican freshman class.

Boehner calls McKeon a “workhorse— who knows military issues and has shown an ability to work across party lines. “We saw what he has done in other ranking member capacities. We know what’s at stake, and we believe he’ll bring everybody together on what we hope to accomplish,— Boehner said last week.

Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said he and McKeon share “respect and trust— and he expects they’ll work well together.

McKeon’s main focus on the committee has been protecting defense industry jobs for his district, which includes major contracting facilities at Air Force Plant 42, where several Air Force planes have been designed.

He has succeeded in steering some work for building the Pentagon’s next-generation Joint Strike Fighter to his district. He is also the founder of the Congressional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus and active in the Missile Defense and House Aerospace caucuses.

Other lawmakers, staff, industry lobbyists and defense experts suggest it’s too early to tell how McKeon will lead the panel’s Republicans.

“He’s our leader for now, but we’ll know we’re in good hands when he starts to lead our agenda,— said a GOP Armed Services member. “We know his record, and he knows we’re looking for somebody who is ready to get in there and push our issues.—

A lobbyist for defense contractors said McKeon was a bit of an unknown. “Right now, it’s difficult to tell how he will tackle big issues.—

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said she was a “little surprised— McKeon made the push for the job given his role on Education and Labor. “I suspect leadership did not want to lose him as ranking member on that committee but wanted to be supportive given his strong interest— in defense, she said.

McKeon was selected for the post over senior Armed Services Republicans Roscoe Bartlett (Md.) and Mac Thornberry (Texas).

Bartlett, who has more seniority than McKeon, expressed frustration after losing his bid. “Not for the first time, big state and big money politics trumped experience, independent judgment and dedication to the legislative work of a committee,— he said.

McKeon, already aware of his raised profile, quickly offered that Bartlett is a “valued colleague.—