February 24, 2009 |

Arizona's lawmakers have big say in Congress
State's members to offer input on critical debates

by John Yaukey - Feb. 23, 2009 12:00 AM
Republic Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Arizona's lawmakers will find themselves at the heart of some of the nation's most important debates as the new Congress moves from the economic-rescue package to the broader agenda of national business beginning Tuesday.

Seniority, committee appointments and personal experience put the state's two senators and eight House members at the forefront of likely contentious debates over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, federal spending and the economy, energy, immigration, judicial nominations and the future of the beleaguered Republican Party.

Committees are important because they are where bills are amended or fine-tuned. They also give members the opportunity to establish an expertise or niche and increase their influence over specific areas of legislation. Most of the heavy lifting related to bills usually is done at the committee level.

Arizona has several members on key committees. Sen. John McCain, widely regarded for his defense expertise, is the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The Democrat-controlled Congress returns to action as Americans are still sorting through the $787 billion economic-stimulus package that it passed this month in an intense three-week push. President Barack Obama signed the landmark legislation Tuesday in Denver.

Debate over the stimulus drew a sharp line between Arizona's fiscally conservative senators and an administration looking to spend its way out of a deepening recession in ways reminiscent of the 1930s.

McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Jon Kyl already have clashed with the White House and Democrats in managing much of the Republican opposition to the economic-rescue package, which passed on a largely party-line vote.

What to do about the war in Afghanistan will be another point where Obama and McCain, the 2008 presidential combatants, either agree or collide.

On Wednesday, McCain will deliver a widely anticipated speech in Washington on "Winning the War in Afghanistan."

Three and a half years ago, McCain gave a speech on the Iraq war that helped make the case for a troop "surge" that appears to have worked, at least for now.

So far, McCain and Obama agree the campaign in Afghanistan is failing and that more troops are needed.

But the two could part ways over the specifics of what to do in a region where virtually every invading army since Alexander the Great has left either a loser or just exhausted.

Last week, Obama ordered 17,000 more troops into the theater. McCain welcomed the move but said the campaign is drifting aimlessly.

"I believe the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like," McCain said. "Today, notwithstanding the administration's ongoing policy reviews, there exists no integrated ... plan for this war."

Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., sit on the House Armed Services Committee and will have a strong voice in the war debate as it moves through Congress.

Judicial nominees

Judicial nominees could become another source of confrontation between the administration and Republicans - notably Kyl, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, where all Supreme Court nominees are first vetted in the Senate.

Kyl, the GOP whip and second-most-powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, is considered a traditional conservative but not an ideologue, according to ratings by 10 organizations in the Almanac of American Politics. Those include the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the American Conservative Union on the right. However, his high-profile leadership role has sharpened his partisan instincts and he emerged this year as a leading critic of some of Obama's Cabinet choices.

Kyl could play a leading role in the debate over as many as four Supreme Court nominees, depending on how age, retirements and illness play out.


Congressional leaders have not yet clarified their plans for immigration reform. The faltering economy and Democratic distaste for the issue have made it less of a priority.

Still, Arizona's congressional bench is stacked with important voices on the subject, including its newest addition, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who sits on the Homeland Security Committee. McCain also joined the Senate's Homeland Security panel this year.

Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now the secretary of Homeland Security, also will play a leading role in shaping immigration policy.

Four leading Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Napolitano to investigate civil-rights complaints stemming from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's crackdowns on illegal immigration.

The Justice and Homeland Security departments are assessing the situation.

On Capitol Hill, McCain and Kyl at times have differed on immigration.

In 2006, Kyl opposed a comprehensive immigration bill that McCain authored with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that included a controversial provision for an immigrant guest-worker program. However, Kyl was one of the lead GOP negotiators and supporters of the revised 2007 version of the Kennedy-McCain legislation. That bill also failed.

Republic reporter Dan Nowicki contributed to this article.

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