Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

McCain Says He Won't Back Homeland Security Nominee

Arizona Republican wanted information about what it would take to achieve 90 percent effective control of the border.

Sen. John McCain switched gears suddenly Wednesday, withdrawing his support for Jeh Johnson’s confirmation for secretary of the Homeland Security Department over a flap about stalled immigration reform.

At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Johnson’s confirmation, McCain, R-Ariz., started out reiterating positive comments he has made about Johnson, saying, “I’ve known you a number of years, and I’m very pleased you will be taking on these new responsibilities. I view you as an outstanding public servant. I’m confident that your confirmation process will be very smooth.”

But that happy talk disappeared abruptly when Johnson said he could not promise to give McCain information from DHS about what it would take to achieve 90 percent effective control of the U.S. border. The senator then did an abrupt about-face, saying Johnson’s demurral would cost his support for the DHS nomination.

“As we work …, the eight of us, to complete this comprehensive immigration [reform], which is stalled, as you know, in the House, ... one major reason why it’s stalled is because [of] a lack of confidence in border security,” McCain said. “I want to know if you will give this committee the exact metrics that are needed sector-by-sector so that we can attain 90 percent effectiveness on the border.”

McCain said that Congress has responsibilities to secure the border, and unless DHS helps it figure out how, it cannot do its job.

“We have our responsibilities here…. So as much as I admire and appreciate you, unless you can tell me that, you will give the information that this committee has the right to have, I cannot support your nomination,” McCain said.

When Johnson said he wanted to be helpful but couldn’t make a promise, McCain called that response unacceptable.

“Let the record show you will not give a yes or no answer. Therefore I will not support your nomination until I get a yes answer,” he said.

Johnson attempted to show he was trying.

“Before I commit unequivocally to your question—and part of me very much wants to do that—I think I need to talk to people at DHS.”

In an interview with National Journal Daily after the hearing, McCain said he did not believe Johnson would provide the information because the White House would not allow it.

“The White House, we are told, ... that when we were putting together comprehensive immigration reform that the White House told Homeland Security not to give us that information,” he said.

“I will not approve of his confirmation, because it is clearly information the Congress needs to make its decisions,” he added. “I’m not encouraging anybody. I act by myself on all of these things.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told NJ Daily that he was unsatisfied with Johnson’s answers about Americans’ privacy rights regarding domestic drones and said he was undecided on whether he would back Johnson’s confirmation.

Still, lawmakers and analysts monitoring Johnson’s confirmation overwhelmingly expect to see the administration’s former drone lawyer, who is credited with paving the way for the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, confirmed.

“When you are confirmed—I’m not going to say if—because you are going to be confirmed,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, during the hearing.

“I personally want to thank you for stepping forward. I think it is the most difficult position of all of the Cabinet secretaries.… It is clear to me that you are an honorable man, … which is exactly what we want.”