WASHINGTON -- Just four years ago, John McCain was the leader of the GOP. Today, he's the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a perch from which the former fighter pilot is deeply engaged in the national conversation over war, terrorism and intelligence gathering.
But in January, the Arizona senator will lose his top-ranking committee seat due to term limits. The only ranking Republican spot available to him next session will be on the Indian Affairs Committee.
Unless, that is, the Senate creates a brand-new select committee. On Wednesday, McCain, flanked by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), proposed just that: a select committee with extensive authority to investigate the Benghazi, Libya, attack and the U.S. government's response.
The Republican most likely to hold the ranking spot on such a panel would be, of course, John McCain, giving the Arizona senator a new burst of relevance.
McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential race to Barack Obama, undermined his effort to create the select committee on the same day he proposed it, when he skipped a private congressional briefing on Benghazi and instead held a press event to complain about not getting briefed enough on Benghazi -- and then became aggressive with a reporter who questioned him about it.
McCain is behind Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in the line for the top Republican slot on the Senate Homeland Security Committee and does not sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"He doesn't have a clear path to do what he wants to do, and I think that's part of what's behind this proposal," said a GOP Senate aide. The aide added that because investigation into the Benghazi affair will cut across the jurisdictions of several committees, the idea of a special panel has merit.
It's likely to run up against considerable opposition, however, from the top Democrats on the various committees with which it would intersect, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
McCain's call for a Watergate-style select committee is also rooted in the premise that the Obama administration is guilty of covering up the details of what really happened in Benghazi -- an idea that was floated by then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and has yet to be supported by any evidence.
Along with Graham and Ayotte, McCain has focused his criticism on how White House officials, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, and the president himself characterized the Sept. 12, 2012, attack in the days thereafter. The three senators have said that the administration was wrong to describe the attack early on as a spontaneous protest in response to an anti-Islamic video.
McCain repeatedly vowed on Wednesday to block Rice's possible nomination to secretary of state for telling several Sunday chat shows on Sept. 16 that the attack was not believed to be a pre-planned act of terrorism -- a fact that the administration later admitted was incorrect but that was, at the time, supported by CIA talking points provided to Rice prior to her appearances. A White House official also told The Huffington Post that Rice was asked to do the interviews because of her job as a top diplomat, not because of any specific knowledge of the incident.
McCain's desired investigation would thus appear to center on what the administration's public statements in the immediate wake of the attack reveal about what the White House knew -- which, based on all available evidence, is what they told the American public as the information became available.