Guard wages last-ditch campaign to influence Defense bill negotiators

Effort seeks to reverse a tentative decision to scrap language that would have elevated the Guard chief to a four-star general.

National Guard members are waging a concerted, last-ditch grassroots lobbying campaign to persuade lawmakers to adopt language that would boost the heavily deployed Guard's prestige and influence in the corridors of the Pentagon.

The effort centers around a tentative decision by House-Senate conference leaders last week to scrap a provision in the Senate version of the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill that would have elevated the Guard chief to a four-star general and given the National Guard Bureau more authority to communicate directly with the Defense secretary and other federal agencies.

Success in persuading leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee to overturn the conference leaders' decision might be unlikely this late in the legislative process, but the Guard has a strong grassroots record and heavy support among lawmakers who fear that overseas deployments are taxing the state-run units, supporters said.

In addition, the push comes only weeks before critical elections that will determine if control of Congress remains in the hands of Republicans, the party that traditionally counts military personnel among its key constituents.

"We know this is a stiff climb, and we know that the odds are against us," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. "But this is important."

Guard members, who gathered this weekend for an annual conference in Albuquerque, N.M., bombarded Capitol Hill with calls and more than 2,100 e-mails Saturday and Sunday, with hundreds more e-mails expected Monday.

Guard members at the meeting also signed banners in support of the Senate language, which may be unveiled during a public event in Washington Tuesday that will be hosted by Sens. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., co-chairmen of the Senate National Guard Caucus, aides said.

"We're doing everything we can to mobilize the National Guard Association membership to make contact with their congressional delegations and also the Big Four," said Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, Nebraska's top Guard officer and the president of the Adjutant Generals Association of the United States.

Meanwhile, Lempke and fellow adjutant generals are calling the four leaders of the Armed Services committees, imploring them to change their mind. And they have drafted a letter to the editor that they might send to newspapers around the country, but Lempke said they had not yet finalized doing that.

Defense authorization conferees originally planned to wrap up work on the bill last week, but lawmakers left for the weekend before resolving several personnel and other issues. Aides said they hoped to complete the conference report in the next several days, with a House vote possible this week.

For Guard members and state leaders, any delay buys them additional time to contact lawmakers. "The longer they go, I think the more difficult time they're going to have knocking [the Senate provision] out," said Lempke.

In addition to the issue of the Guard chief's status, National Guard state leaders are urging conferees to delete language in both the House and Senate defense authorization bills that would allow activation of the National Guard during domestic emergencies without governors' consent. The language also is opposed by the National Governors' Association, which issued a release last week stating that the provision allows for "unwarranted expansions of federal authority."

NEXT STORY: Senate approves port security bill

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