WASHINGTON — It usually doesn't take much to get the famously hot-tempered Sen. John McCain fired up — especially when you mention the Obama administration and defense.
But this time the 79-year-old Senate Armed Services chairman is letting Defense Secretary Ash Carter know he is on his bad side, suggesting Carter slighted Congress by not personally providing key lawmakers a preview of the 2017 Pentagon budget.
"He wanted to send over the deputy secretary and the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and we just said, 'No thanks,'" said McCain, R-Ariz. "For the last 30 years, it's always been the [defense] secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was unheard of."
Though a reliably irascible critic of the Obama administration, McCain said the episode is emblematic of a frayed relationship between Congress and the Pentagon's civilian leadership. It also sets the tone for Carter's defense of the administration's budget proposal at early March posture hearings. (McCain and other Republicans are already deriding the budget as inadequate on national defense.)
"It's not so much frustration, but a manifestation of the disconnect between the Pentagon and Congressional committees, and it isn't just Republicans that he decided not to meet, it's Democrats as well," McCain said.
Instead of the traditional in-person brief to the so-called "Big Eight" — the chairmen and ranking members of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees — the Pentagon instead offered two knowledgeable senior officials to do the talking: Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Paul Selva.
McCain and the SASC's ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, said they declined the offer.
McCain is said to have been piqued that days before the budget's formal rollout, Carter had no time for the private briefing, but selectively previewed elements of the budget at the Economic Club in Washington, D.C. and on official visits to military facilities in California and Nevada.
"I have seen many secretaries of defense, I haven't seen an environment like this," McCain said. "It comes from the top, the attitude of the entire administration towards Congress."
A senior Pentagon official said DoD provided detailed information to Senate and House staff about the budget prior to Carter's trip to California and Nevada. "Secretary Carter looks forward to testifying before Senate and House committees in the coming weeks to discuss the budget," the defense official said.
Several other lawmakers in the "Big Eight" — the chairmen and ranking members of the armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees — had different views from McCain about the briefing and said they did not feel slighted.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, shrugged off the suggestion Congress was slighted — "I’m not sure I have thoughts about it one way or another." — and the idea of a larger rift. "Sounds to me like those are Senate issues," he said.
"I think we are well briefed," said the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "They answer my questions when I ask…We appreciate all that good advice. We have hearings, we make every effort to understand what the facts and challenges are to get the best result for the peace and security of our country."
If nothing else, the flap marks how much the relationship between McCain and Carter has deteriorated since Carter's confirmation hearing a year ago. Back then McCain endorsed Carter as "one of America's most respected and experienced defense professionals," and in a jab at the White House, said he hoped Carter's voice would be heard there.
McCain himself said he was taken aback at the turn the relationship has taken. "I'm surprised because I had known Secretary Carter for many years," he said.
The friction has been on display in Carter's appearances before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where both he and McCain have been testy at turns. McCain has vented on Carter as the face of the Obama administration's military strategy against the Islamic State and suggested Carter is glossing over the strategy's flaws.
During Carter's Dec. 9 SASC appearance, he stung the chairman in his opening statement by suggesting McCain and other congressional defense leaders were making it difficult to carry out the war against the Islamic State by holding up much-needed funding and moving slowly to confirm key Pentagon nominees.
Carter, at the hearing, seemed to grumble at being summoned to Capitol Hill multiple times, for which McCain offered a rebuke: "When you were nominated for your position, you agreed to appear and testify upon request before this committee."
On Thursday, McCain said another symptom of the disharmony is Carter and other Pentagon officials' "extreme reluctance to testify before the [Senate Armed Services] committee. We almost have to exercise our subpoena power."
Beyond McCain, Two Senate Democrats in the Big Eight — Reed, and the SAC-D’s Sen. Richard Durbin, of Illinois — said they were not offended by the offer to be briefed by Work and Selva.
Reed said he understood Carter's scheduling conflicts in light of his ambitious agenda and was satisfied the relevant staffs had briefed each other.
Asked if a rift exists between the Pentagon and Congress, Reed did not disagree.
"It's incumbent on both sides, and multiple sides, to communicate consistently, not just one side or another," Reed said.
Outside of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Durbin dismissed the perception Carter snubbed the Big Eight.
"I'm not so full of myself to be worried about that," Durbin said.
Defense News Staff Writer Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.