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With McCain's passing, powerful Senate committee loses an influential check on Trump

With McCain's passing, powerful Senate committee loses an influential check on Trump
A flag flies at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 26. in honor of John McCain. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

The White House lowered flags to half-staff on Sunday to honor Sen. John McCain, who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer, and congressional leaders of both parties said the late war hero and political icon will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Tributes poured in from around the country and abroad for McCain as an American patriot and a statesman who put his country first. The five-term senator from Arizona will lie in state at the Arizona Capitol on Wednesday, on what would have been his 82nd birthday, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said in a tweet.

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McCain’s office did not release a schedule of memorial services, but services are expected in Phoenix and at the National Cathedral in Washington. He had asked to be buried on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which he had attended.

Amid the accolades, McCain’s passing raised the question of whether any other Senate Republicans would stand up to President Trump. Even as he was battling brain cancer at his home in Arizona this year, McCain had fired off missives chiding Trump on immigration, healthcare and foreign affairs, particularly involving Russia.

As recently as last month, McCain had ripped Trump’s press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “disgraceful,” slamming what he saw as Trump’s “naivete, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats.”

Trump, who has mocked McCain’s war record for years, expressed “deepest sympathies and respect” to McCain’s family in a Saturday night tweet. But the president offered no praise for McCain. He also didn’t mention McCain in a flurry of tweets Sunday morning before he went to play golf at his course in Virginia.

Several other Republican critics of the president, including Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, are retiring from the Senate.

McCain was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Corker heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Assuming Republicans hold the Senate in the November elections, McCain’s gavel will go to Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, while Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho most probably will chair Foreign Relations.

Both are avid Trump supporters and seem far less likely to push back at the White House as McCain and Corker did. They are expected to be more compliant with the White House on Russia, North Korea and other issues.

Probably no one took the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to challenge or block the executive branch as seriously as McCain, current and former lawmakers said Sunday.

“He was an institution standard-bearer. He reflected the Senate as it needed to be,” said Jane Harman, who accompanied McCain on more than 10 overseas trips in her 17 years as a House member who represented the 36th Congressional District when it ran along the coast from Venice to San Pedro.

Now president of the Wilson Center think tank, Harman said McCain’s loss will be felt particularly hard because Congress has seen its power weaken over a period of years.

“The Trump presidency is a very strong presidency model,” Harman said. “It matters that Congress push back where it sees abuses or excesses. And I don’t think Congress has played that role enough, in this presidency and in prior presidencies.”

McCain, she said, commanded unusual respect on the Senate floor in part due to the valor and courage he showed after he was shot down over Hanoi and brutally tortured during his 5½ years as a prisoner of war.

Both McCain and Corker have bucked the president, especially over Trump’s handling of international and military affairs. Corker has been a vocal critic of Trump’s tariffs and trade threats directed at American allies such as the European Union, and both men denounced the president’s posture on Russia.

McCain “made very clear that he disagreed with the direction of this administration, that he was such a strong supporter of NATO, of our allies,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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“And he inspired others of us also to speak out, and that was important,” she added.

Lawmakers were at a loss as to who would fill that void. In an era of deeply entrenched partisan politics, analysts say McCain’s and Corker’s independent voices will be sorely missed.

“The Senate is structured in a way that you have to reach across the aisle. I think that’s why John McCain enjoyed the Senate so much. It forced that kind of compromise,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain’s fellow Republican senator of Arizona, who is also retiring. “But lately you know we’ve done our best frankly to make it a partisan body,” he said on CBS “Face the Nation.”

“So it has to change,” he added. “There’s no other way. We need to govern. There are some big issues that we need to solve that can only be solved if we reach across the aisle. I hope that we do it in the tradition of John McCain.”

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