Senate removes provision to aid Boeing tanker deal

The Senate late Thursday removed a provision in its version of the fiscal 2004 $87 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill that could have paved the way for approving the Bush administration's controversial plan to lease Boeing commercial 767 airplanes as refueling tankers.

Prior to a voice vote, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, offered an amendment that removed a requirement for the Pentagon to describe alternatives for replacing the Air Force's fleet of KC-135 tanker aircraft. The provision was added by the committee during its markup, and it was unclear today why Stevens chose to drop the tanker language at the last minute, although an aide for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said McCain, a staunch opponent of the Boeing lease, asked the chairman to remove the language.

"This authorization legislation is not germane to a wartime appropriations bill," the aide said. "And Sen. McCain had a serious concern that this provision would somehow call for a half-baked analysis of tanker alternatives for the air refueling fleet" in the span of only one month, although a formal analysis of alternatives can take as long as one year, the aide said.

Specific legislation for executing a formal tanker analysis of alternatives by an independent agency is included in the Senate version of the 2004 defense authorization bill.

The provision was likely tied to the Bush administration's much-disputed plan to lease 100 Boeing 767 jets and convert them to aerial refueling tankers to replace part of the Pentagon's aging KC-135 tanker fleet-an effort that has languished while the Senate Armed Services Committee mulls the deal. That panel is the only one of four committees of jurisdiction that has yet to sign off on the administration's reprogramming request. Approval from all four committees is needed to expedite the lease.

Although the provision would have called on the Air Force to conduct some form of inquiry into other, perhaps less costly tanker options, it also would have provided a vehicle for lawmakers who support the Boeing lease to amend the legislation in conference with the House and, potentially, approve the reprogramming.

While the provision was eliminated from the Senate bill, the House-which boasts numerous champions of the Boeing deal-has yet to mark up its supplemental bill.

"Once the conferees go into closed doors, they can do whatever they want," said Christopher Hellman, director of the Project on Military Spending Oversight at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. "But if neither house has spoken on it, and if you can show a legislative history where one of the houses spoke against it, that would be very bad form, and individual members might conceivably take that personally."

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