Senate blocks plans to mothball aircraft carrier, cancel cargo plane

Amendments to emergency spending bill keep USS John F. Kennedy in service and stop proposed cancellation of C-130J program.

The Senate Wednesday voted to keep the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in service and blocked the proposed cancellation of the C-130J cargo plane program. Both marked triumphs of local politics over the Pentagon's budget plans.

The amendments were attached to an $81 billion fiscal 2005 emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, which lawmakers aim to speed to the president's desk by early next month. Final passage is expected Thursday, after roll call votes on amendments to add $213 million for procurement of armored Humvees and to boost border protection funds by $147 million.

Passage of the emergency spending bill will coincide with high-level negotiations over the fiscal 2006 budget resolution, with House and Senate moderates continuing to balk at proposed Medicaid cuts. GOP leaders and President Bush are pushing five-year spending cuts of up to $50 billion in a range of entitlement programs, but are running into difficulties with rebellious party members.

"We were close at one time; now we're not," Senate Budget Chairman Gregg said. But aides in both chambers said they hoped a deal could be struck once GOP leaders decide on a course of action. That might happen "in the next 48 hours," one senior aide said.

As part of its fiscal 2006 budget request, the Pentagon proposed decommissioning the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Kennedy, the third-oldest carrier in the fleet, scheduled to be retired in 2018.

The move would save about $1.2 billion and free up funds considered necessary for other projects, while reducing the number of carriers from 12 to 11.

But senators from Florida and Virginia, fearful that carriers based at the Norfolk, Va., naval station might be redeployed in place of the Kennedy, led a successful effort to amend the supplemental to prevent mothballing the aging carrier. The vote was 58-38.

Without a recorded vote, Georgia's senators and others successfully attached a provision to block cancellation of the C-130J multi-year procurement contract, which the Pentagon says would save $5 billion. The plane is manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp., which has a major facility in Marietta, Ga.

In the face of determined congressional opposition, the Pentagon already had backtracked from the plan, but Senate backers were adamant that protection of the contract be written into law in the absence of a formal amended budget request. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said termination costs could amount to $1.6 billion and argued the plane has operated successfully in Iraq despite allegations of waste and inefficiency in the program.

The actions came as senators boosted the bill's price tag by nearly $400 million throughout the day, adding funds mostly for food aid but also for smaller items such as assistance for Haiti, Army Reserve tuition programs and district courts near the southwestern U.S. border, which have an increased caseload due to immigration-related filings.

Thursday's likely final passage will come after votes on an amendment by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., to add $213 million for Humvees, which are manufactured by South Bend, Ind.-based AM General. Bayh and others charge the Pentagon has low-balled the number of armored vehicles needed on the ground in Iraq.

Also to be voted on is the border protection amendment, by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., which would be offset by a corresponding $147 million reduction in contributions to United Nations peacekeeping missions. The Senate already voted Wednesday to add $390 million for border protection, offset by a reduction in funds for diplomatic and consular initiatives the State Department will not need until the next fiscal year, according to Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

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