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Bipartisan Comity Fraying on Defense Panel

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Inhofe, left, took over as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel after McCain, and committee Democrats have rebuked Inhofe for his more partisan approach.

“This committee has had to deal with difficult issues before,” Levin said at one point. “There have been occasions when we have actually split on a party line. We have survived those very, very strongly. We will survive this one, and we’ll be just as strong coming out as we were going in.”

Still, in an interview, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called the clashes on the panel “worrisome and bothersome.”

When asked whether these early conflicts could “spoil the water” for future work on the defense authorization bill, he said, “I hope not.”

“I respect Sen. McCain and Sen. Lindsey [Graham, R-S.C.] and all the people who have been so vocal. I respect the living daylights out of them because they are that committed and that good,” he said. “With that, I also hope they respect some of us might have a different view.”

A senior congressional official said there was confidence that Levin and Inhofe would be able to find a balance together eventually.

“Sometimes it takes time when you have somebody new sitting next to you to be as comfortable as the last person who sat next to you for many years,” the official said. “That is just natural.”

A Lot to Fight Over

But as the nation faces significant fiscal hurdles, further defense reductions almost certainly will cause strife among members of the panel. Republicans oppose further reductions, as do Democrats. But there are deep divisions among the two parties’ leaders as to how deficit spending is cut. This could make it difficult to agree on the outlines of a defense authorization bill.

Levin has argued strongly for a balanced approach that should include cuts and revenue increases. Inhofe, however, believes most cuts should fall on entitlements.

Meanwhile, Graham insists that some of the clashes are more coincidental. But in the next breath, he said, “I just think our Democratic friends need to up their game in terms of questioning.”

Graham charged that Democrats are going easy on the administration over the Benghazi attack, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed last September. He has threatened to hold up the Hagel nomination until he gets answers to questions he has about the issue.

Graham argued that he and McCain joined Democrats in insisting on an investigation of the George W. Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. But, he complained, in an interview after a hearing last week with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Chairman Levin, who I respect greatly, didn’t ask one question about Benghazi.”

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