By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon made it official Thursday morning, announcing he will not seek a 12th term.
The California Republican’s voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes as he uttered the words defense sources predicted were coming for months: “I am not a candidate for Congress this year.”
During a wide-ranging press conference, McKeon vowed to remain a vocal advocate for US troops and endorsed his vice chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, to succeed him as HASC chairman. And he revealed Washington’s recent dysfunction and the tactics of his party’s tea party members influenced his decision to retire.
A Thornberry aide told Defense News on Wednesday evening that “Mr. Thornberry plans to make his case to the [House Republican] steering committee when the time comes, a case we believe is very strong.”
McKeon candidly acknowledged the changed composition of the House GOP caucus that includes around 80 tea party-affiliated conservative members less interested in cutting deals than jamming the gears of government to a halt.
“That was just one issue,” McKeon said in response to a question by Defense News. “I can’t say it was not part of it because it has been a frustrating year. Not so much for us but for our leadership.”
The veteran member said he watched with frustration too many times over the last few years as House Republican leaders presented their caucus a “plan of action” on legislation that time and again “was rejected” because the tea party faction decided “it wasn’t good enough.”
McKeon went on to challenge the tea party portion of the House GOP caucus.
“I think every member of our conference needs to look at themselves and re-evaluate what they were sent here to do,” a stern-faced McKeon said.
If tea party members cannot support House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders, McKeon challenged them to “run for leadership” or “accede to the will of leadership.”
McKeon’s frustration with Congress’ inability to get things done is not limited to members of his own party.
He also criticized “people trying to push the Democratic Party farther to the left” for joining tea partiers in creating a climate in which “it’s harder to get things done.”
On defense and national security issues, the retiring McKeon had tough words for the commander in chief, President Barack Obama.
“A lot of the frustration comes from down the street,” he said, referring to the White House at the opposite end of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. “We think we’ve worked something out with the president, but then he goes and moves the goalposts.”
He panned Obama for not talking more clearly to the American people about why it is important to keep up the fight in Afghanistan so it does not again become “a safe haven for al-Qaida.”
Another major factor in his decision are House term limits for chairmen. Had he run again and won, McKeon would have had to give up his HASC gavel, creating what he feared would have been awkward moments.
“I don’t want to be around here second-guessing a chairman,” he said. “And I don’t want people making comparisons. That was the biggest motivator.”
He also described himself as a “healthy” 75 years old, meaning he can “go out and do something else,” as well as spend more time with his family.
McKeon assured reporters “this is not a funeral, this is not a going away party — this is just ‘I am not running for Congress’.”
“There is very much that we need to do,” he said, adding the Armed Services Committee has a busy year ahead.
McKeon has tapped Thornberry with the difficult task of “looking at how the Pentagon spends its money.” He suggested the panel could look at some reforms in that area in his final defense authorization bill, which the committee will move this spring.
Another focus for his final year with the HASC gavel will be Afghanistan, particularly ongoing efforts to hand Afghan security forces more responsibility.
The departing chairman praised Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the panel’s ranking member and its staff for their “tireless efforts.” And he called “representing the troops” the “highlight of my time in Congress.”
In a statement, Smith praised a man with whom he often disagreed openly during public hearings.
“Buck set a tone on this committee that the rest of Congress should seek to emulate. As political tension continued to rise in Congress, Buck stayed committed to bipartisanship,” Smith said. “We formed a strong working relationship that allowed us to pass the National Defense Authorization Act year after year.
“Given all the tense national security issues we have faced over the years, it would have been easy to devolve into partisan fights. Buck never let that happen, he never let our disagreements get in the way of providing for our troops,” Smith said. “Buck understood the importance of continuing to make progress. While we disagreed, and disagreed on many things, we disagreed in a respectful way that allowed this committee to continue to move forward and achieve its important goals.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called McKeon “a true Patriot” and thanked him for his leadership on DoD budget issues.
“As Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck has fought hard to provide our troops serving around the world, and their families, the resources and support they need to accomplish their mission,” Hagel said in a statement. “He has been a strong advocate for ensuring that our military has the capabilities to meet the complex and challenging threats it will face in the future.”
Longtime Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has worked with McKeon for years on compromise versions of the NDAA.
On Wednesday, McCain called his GOP mate “a strong leader” who is “going out with a win” for helping secure two years of relief for the Pentagon from some across-the-board cuts.
One defense industry insider also praised McKeon.
Michael Herson, president and CEO of American Defense International, called McKeon “the strongest chairman of the Armed Services Committee since Les Aspin,” adding that he “has been a fierce advocate for the defense industry at a time when it needed it most.”
Herson also lauded McKeon for his pursuit of bipartisanship and for “engaging the House Republican leadership for additional defense funding and sequester relief during a time when many in his party were vocal supporters of defense cuts.”
Another sector insider, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, warned that McKeon’s retirement decision spells trouble for the defense-industrial complex — and the Republican Party.
“McKeon’s departure reflects the changing face of the GOP in the House. It used to be reflexively pro-defense, but now even the Pentagon is falling under the rubric of ‘big government’ for some Republicans,” Thompson said.
“McKeon has been increasingly at odds with his party’s right wing, which views legislators who ‘bring home the bacon’ for their constituents as part of the problem in Washington,” Thompson said. “Retail politicians like McKeon are being replaced in Republican ranks by ideologues. This probably does not bode well for the party’s future electoral prospects.”
As that fight inside the “big-tent party” rages, McKeon vowed Thursday to be more than a mere spectator, telling reporters: “I don’t plan to forget about these issues, or the troops.”
“Patricia and I will always be among those who pray,” McKeon said of his wife, pausing and momentarily shedding tears, “for the safe return of those in uniform.”
“I will be leaving this job in a year, but I will not be leaving the fight,” he said. “There will be other fora, other places to talk about our troops. and I will be there.”