Washington, Alabama Fight Over Tanker Contract

The political bickering over a giant Air Force contract has reached a new level. That after one senator's comments on NPR created a firestorm on the other end of the country.

Two top defense companies are vying for a $35 billion deal to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of tankers — the planes that refuel warfighters in the sky.

Boeing would build the new aircraft in Washington state, where it already makes planes. Northrop Grumman would team with Airbus to assemble the planes in a yet-to-be-built plant in Mobile, Ala.

The contract has been tied up in politics for nearly a decade now. Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.

In a story earlier this month, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) made the case that the work should be done in her state.

"I have stood on the line in Everett, Wash., where we have thousands of workers who go to work every day to build these planes," she said. "I would challenge anybody to tell me that they've stood on a line in Alabama and seen anybody building anything."

Her comment raised the ire of Alabama politicians, like Bradley Byrne, a Republican candidate for governor who is from Mobile. He calls it part of a calculated effort to belittle the technical expertise of Alabama workers.

"The audience is the Pentagon and it's sort of an easy pickins to say you know those folks down South, they're dumb and they can't do this sort of thing," Byrne says.

He has offered to pay for Murray to come see Alabama's shipbuilding, auto manufacturing and aerospace industries. She hasn't responded, nor backed down. Her spokesman says the senator "was very accurately pointing out that there is no tanker line in Alabama."

Since the story ran, NPR has received media requests for Murray's quote. And it has set off a war of words between Mobile and Seattle editorial writers.

Lost in the rhetoric is how long will it be before the Air Force gets new tankers to replace the Eisenhower-era planes the military now depends on to deliver fuel around the world. As one defense analyst told me — "The arithmetic is starting to get a little worrisome." No one has asked to rebroadcast that quote.

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