Boeing C-17 vote delayed amid furor
McCain move to kill program draws supporters’ fire.
By Kristopher Hanson, Staff Writer
Posted: 09/29/2009 07:25:37 PM PDT
Lawmakers delayed a final vote Tuesday on efforts to extend production of Boeing’s C-17 following a rancorous debate during which Sen. John McCain introduced an amendment to kill the program supporting 5,000 jobs in Long Beach and thousands more across the nation.
Continued debate on the plane’s future is scheduled to begin early today, with a final vote set for late afternoon or early Thursday.
The massive jet, assembled at a sprawling plant in Long Beach adjacent to the airport, has been the subject of a heated debate between supporters and critics trying to pare down defense spending.
In early September, a Senate panel approved $2.5 billion to fund 10 more C-17s over objections from top administration officials led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The issue came to a head Tuesday when the full Senate began deliberations on the nation’s $626 billion defense budget for Fiscal Year 2010, which included the $2.5 billion for C-17 production.
McCain, the Arizona Republican and longtime critic of “pork barrel” spending, launched a spirited but likely futile assault on continued C-17 funding Tuesday inside Senate chambers, accusing Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, of failing to heed White House orders to scrap C-17 production as requested.
“What we would do in this bill is effectively fund the purchase of new aircraft that we neither need nor can afford with critical sustainment money,” McCain said.
The senator’s remarks drew a strong rebuke from C-17 supporters, including Inouye and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who argued that the C-17 was a strong, reliable aircraft better suited to transport cargo and troops than the military’s aging fleet of C-5A cargo airplanes – many of which are 40 years and older and in need of expensive upgrades.
“I urge all my colleagues to reject the amendment of the Senator from Arizona and to vote to support the continuation of the C-17 program,” Inouye said. “We believe this is a critical investment which will support our national security strategy, and add much needed airlift capability.”
Dodd, who represents thousands of workers building C-17 components, called McCain’s amendment “short-sighted” and a move that would “wipe out a highly skilled American work force and irreparably damage our military’s combat readiness.”
“The C-17 is the most reliable aircraft in our arsenal – and it’s also the most versatile,” Dodd said. “This amendment would hurt our workers, our troops, and our national security. It is a massive expenditure disguised as a small short-term savings. It is the very definition of cutting off our nose to spite our face. I urge my colleagues to join me in defeating it.”
C-17 supporter Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, also defended the plane, saying continued production is vital for military and humanitarian needs.
The C-17 is often called into service to deliver medical goods, food and water in the wake of natural disasters, and its ability to land on short, unpaved runways sets it apart from the C-5A and has made it a favorite for pilots reaching remote regions devastated by earthquakes and other calamities.
“The C-17 is a proven, combat-tested airlift capability that is essential to the fight we are in right now and has been a workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Bond, whose state assembles many of the parts used for the jet’s final assembly in Long Beach. “With the war in Afghanistan heating up and the war in Iraq continuing, our airlift needs are only growing.”
McCain, however, may be vindicated if the White House ultimately decides to veto C-17 production when the defense budget reaches President Obama’s desk, which may come as soon as next week.
Earlier, the White House reiterated its opposition to continued C-17 production, though it stopped short of threatening a veto.
Instead, White House officials have focused their efforts on killing a $50-billion F-22 fighter jet program and ending development of a new “Joint Strike Fighter” engine and new presidential helicopter fleet.
“The Administration strongly objects to the addition of $2.5 billion in funding for 10 unrequested C-17 airlift aircraft,” the White House statement reads. “Analyses by the (Department of Defense) have shown that the 205 C-17s in the force and on order, together with the existing fleet of C-5 aircraft, are sufficient to meet the Department’s future airlift needs, even under the most stressing situations.”
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