WASHINGTON — Though Senate Republican leaders are complaining about Democratic obstruction of nominees to run the federal government, at least one name is being delayed by the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee himself, Sen. John McCain.
President Trump's pick for U.S. Army general counsel, Ryan Dean Newman, has languished in committee for 11 weeks without a hearing, a prerequisite to an up-or-down vote to advance him to the Senate floor. Newman is a decorated war veteran, former Supreme Court clerk and a former chief counsel for McCain's longtime nemesis, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Before he went on medical leave last week, McCain, R-Ariz., confirmed he was blocking the nomination over Newman's opposition to the idea of including women in the military draft — which McCain supports. It also happens that the idea was central to a Senate floor fight between McCain and Cruz last year.
In a brief hallway interview last week before McCain took medical leave, he told Defense News his objection to Newman is "registering women for selective service. … He opposed it."
"It has nothing to do with my relationship with Sen. Cruz, I promise," McCain said of the delay, in a prior interview.
The various public clashes between McCain and Cruz have been widely interpreted as a sign of GOP fragmentation between establishment figures and tea partyers who wield disruption in service of conservative principles. McCain famously called Cruz and similar Republicans "wacko birds" before apologizing.
For perspective, this is only one nomination. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis credits McCain with "leading the effort" in Congress to fill vacancies at the DoD and told reporters that McCain is "doing everything he can to fill those numbers."
The White House has been slow to advance its nominees to the Senate for confirmation and — to the GOP's growing anger — Senate Democrats have been using delay tactics to slow confirmation when the names arrive.
Trump first announced his plans to nominate Newman on March 21 and sent his name to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 28, where there's been no action since.
According to people familiar with the matter, Newman, during an office visit with McCain after his nomination, expressed he was against registering women for the draft. That has fueled the impasse and fueled speculation the White House would withdraw Newman's name.
A White House spokesman declined to comment and Newman did not return calls seeking comment.
Cruz, in a hallway interview, noted Newman is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Cruz praised Newman as "a dedicated and tremendously talented public servant. … I am confident he will make an exemplary general counsel of the Army."
Newman is a former U.S. Army captain and received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. He was Cruz's general counsel when the White House tapped him in January for its "landing team" at the Department of Justice, where he has since become an acting assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy.
"I am hopeful that the committee will take up his nomination shortly and confirm him," Cruz said last week. "That's the path we should take, and its the path I hope to see going forward."
Asked to explain why McCain is not moving forward, Cruz demurred: "I will leave that to others to address."
McCain and other lawmakers have advocated adding women to the military draft as an issue of fairness. As recently as last month, an attempt to include language in the House's 2018 defense policy bill was defeated in the Armed Services Committee.
Last year, the HASC approved such language during its authorization debate, and McCain said he supported it. The language was later dropped during negotiations between the two chambers, and the 2017 bill signed into law instead created a commission to study the draft registration system.
As McCain urged passage of the 2017 defense policy bill in the Senate on June 7, 2016, Cruz said in a floor speech that the bill's inclusion of a proposal to add women to the draft was forcing him to vote "no" on the whole bill.
"The idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls in combat, to my mind, makes little or no sense," Cruz said. "It is at minimum a radical proposition."
McCain countered that including women in the draft is "simply fair" now that the Pentagon has opened all military roles to women.
"Every uniform leader of the United States military seemed to have a different opinion from the senator from Texas, whose military background is not extensive," McCain said.
Aaron Mehta and Leo Shane III in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.