Uproar over tanker contract continues as lawmakers clash



Threatening to derail the Air Force’s selection of a foreign-designed air tanker to refuel military warplanes, a group of lawmakers led a Capitol Hill rally of American aerospace workers Thursday and pledged to shoot down the deal.

As the senators and representatives lined up at a news conference with Boeing Co. union leaders and engineers across the street from the Capitol, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., took the Senate floor to stoutly defend the Air Force’s choice of a tanker that would be built by a consortium of Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS, a European consortium whose Airbus airframe would serve as the tanker’s skeleton.

While it remains unclear exactly how the huge contract for the 179 tankers could be repudiated, Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., whose district embraces thousands of Boeing workers, said the upcoming Defense appropriations process could provide the opportunity.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who led the protest, said the bipartisan opposition to the deal is weighing all of the options to short-circuit the Air Force’s decision. One risky approach might be an attempt to abrogate any contracts between the Pentagon and Northrop Grumman-EADS — an option that could send the dispute into U.S. courts and drag out the actual building of the plane by years.

Boeing is now seeking to overturn to contract through the formal protest it filed with GAO, which must issue a ruling by June 19.

At the rally, Murray and Dicks were joined by several other lawmakers whose states and districts could be harmed by Boeing’s loss of the work. Others on hand to rail against the Air Force decision were Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Reps. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.; Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and Dave Reichert, R-Wash.

The protestors accused the Air Force of stacking the deck against Boeing and, as Dicks complained, “doing tricky things” to justify the award to Northrop-EADS. “They bent over backward to make sure Boeing didn’t get it,” he fumed.

Opponents of the contract argued that U.S. security is undermined when contracts for American weapons systems and technology are granted to foreign companies, and contended that defense dollars should not be spent abroad. “We need to keep our taxpayers’ dollars here at home to help our country’s economy,” Murray said.

The construction of the planes could cost up to $40 billion over a decade. Boeing workers have said the loss of the contract could end thousands of jobs in Washington, Kansas and other states.

As the protest of the contract continued, Wicker was on the Senate floor extolling its virtues. Northrop Grumman’s proposal, he maintained, represented “a better product and better value for the taxpayer.” He noted that assembly of the plane, from major parts manufactured in Europe, would take place in Alabama and parts for it would be made in 49 U.S. states, including along the Gulf Coast in his home state.

He took issue with Boeing’s estimate of job losses, insisting that the Northrop Grumman tanker deal “will create 48,000 direct and indirect jobs across our country,” and complained that opponents have spread misinformation about the economic impact of the project.