Two states, one aircraft carrier and no end in sight

May 16, 2011

Progress on Capitol Hill is usually all about compromise — nearly every piece of legislation is ripe for some sort of deal. But some battles can end with only one winner, and in the case of an ongoing spat between the Virginia and Florida congressional delegations, an aircraft carrier can’t be sawed in half.

Since 2008, those two states have been squabbling on Capitol Hill over a Pentagon plan to move a nuclear carrier from Norfolk, Va. — where the entire East Coast fleet of carriers is based — to Mayport, Fla. The carrier would take with it several thousand jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.

Each side has tried to ride the prevailing political tides. Florida lawmakers — and the Pentagon — say that basing the entire carrier fleet in one location makes it susceptible to potential terrorism, hurricanes and other disasters. Virginia says those fears are exaggerated and, citing the austere fiscal climate, argues that the government should not spend scarce defense money to build a new port when the existing one works just fine.

The carrier saga is a good illustration of how having a member in the right place on the right committee can make all the difference.

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee passed a defense authorization bill for 2012 that pointedly omits $30 million the Pentagon had requested to upgrade the Florida port in anticipation of the move.

The sponsor of the omission: Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who chairs the subcommittee that handled that portion of the bill.

“At first blush, I know it’s very easy to conclude that this is just Florida versus Virginia, but it’s much bigger than that,” Forbes said at last week’s markup of the defense measure. Money that goes toward upgrading Mayport, he said, would hurt the Navy in other budget areas such as shipbuilding.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) tried to restore the money with an amendment, but then withdrew it before a vote, apparently because it was unlikely to pass.

“Every single ship in the U.S. Navy has an alternative home port and maintenance location except for aircraft carriers that are based on the East Coast,” Miller said. “Our aircraft carriers are much too valuable an asset not to provide for backups.”

Forbes may have won that round, but the fight isn’t over.

If Miller offers his amendment again when the bill hits the House floor, Florida will have an advantage: The state has 25 House members to Virginia’s 11. But Virginia has the chamber’s No. 2 leader — Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R).

Across the Capitol, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) — a former secretary of the Navy — has a senior post on the Senate Armed Services Committee and says he will work to block the move when the defense authorization bill is in his chamber. The Navy, he says, just can’t afford it.

“I don’t think the numbers add up here,” Webb said in an interview. “Politics aside, if I were in the Pentagon right now, I think I’d be saying the same thing.”

Even if Virginians succeed in keeping the funding out of the defense authorization bill, the whole debate could rage again when the separate defense appropriations bill moves through Congress. Rep. Bill Young — from, you guessed it, Florida — is the No. 2 Republican on the Appropriations military construction subcommittee and No. 1 on the defense subcommittee.

Both states will also be key to the 2012 presidential race, making the issue a potentially tricky one for the Obama administration. (Assuming, cynically, that politics has anything to do with such decisions.) The Pentagon plans to move the carrier by 2019, meaning that this fight could drag on for several years.

Police are spared cuts

A month ago, President Obama signed into law a spending deal that will cut money from nearly every facet of the federal government but increase spending in one key area: congressional security.

After the Tucson shootings that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Republicans and Democrats agreed to find the cash to boost the U.S. Capitol Police budget for 2011 by $12.5 million. Will the department be protected again in the next round of spending reductions?

Last Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee released guidelines for how much money will be allocated for each of its fiscal 2012 spending bills, and the legislative branch measure is slated for a cut of 5 percent— $227 million— compared with 2011.

The next day, Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse went before the Senate Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee to make the case for a 12 percent budget increase for 2012.

Morse said the department is “keenly aware of the economic situation our nation faces today,” but needs the money “so that it may conduct its constitutional responsibilities in an open and safe manner without disruption from crime or terrorism.”

The House version of the legislative branch bill — with Republicans’ proposal for the Capitol Police budget — should be released in early June.

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