Air Force Tanker Deal Riles Lawmakers Many in Congress are furious about the Air Force awarding a $35 billion air tanker contract to a consortium of European and American companies, and some are now threatening to fight its funding. But senators from Alabama, where the consortium would bring thousands of jobs, are celebrating.
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Air Force Tanker Deal Riles Lawmakers

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Air Force Tanker Deal Riles Lawmakers

Air Force Tanker Deal Riles Lawmakers

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There was a storm of protectionist protest today on the Senate floor, and it all had to do with the $35 billion contract for air refueling tankers. The Air Force awarded the contract on Friday to Northrop Grumman Corporation and its European partner EADS which makes the Airbus. Boeing was the big loser in the deal. And today, senators from states that stood to benefit if Boeing had won the contract vow to challenge the Air Force's decision.

NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: Leading the outcry over the air tanker contract going to Europe's biggest aircraft builder was Washington Democrat Patty Murray, the senior senator from the state that makes Boeing jets.

PATTY MURRAY: We are hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs to foreign countries already, so I cannot imagine why at a time like this our government would decide to take 44,000 American jobs, good jobs, and give them to the Europeans. Instead of securing the American economy in our military while we are at war, we are creating a European economic stimulus plan at the expense of U.S. workers.

PAT ROBERTS: This is the Air Force, not Alice in Wonderland.

WELNA: Kansas Republican Pat Roberts was equally indignant about the Air Force's decision. Had Boeing won the contract, Kansas is where its jets would have been turned into flying tankers. Instead, Roberts said the Air Force outsource the renewal of its aging tanker fleet.

ROBERTS: The Airbus frame will be made in Europe, no question about that. The nose will be made in France, the wings in Great Britain, and part of the fuselage in Germany. Bon Jour, the Air Force has certainly gone into the wild, blue European yonder.

WELNA: And fellow Kansas Republican Sam Brownback vowed to use his seat on the Appropriations Committee to challenge the deal.

SAM BROWNBACK: This is one senator's that's going to fight against this, going to fight against this in appropriation process, and I don't think it's smart. I think it's a wrong thing to do.

WELNA: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions strongly disagrees. His state stands to benefit from Northrop Grumman and EADS getting the contracts since that's where the flying tankers are to be assembled.

JEFF SESSIONS: I don't see how politicians can come in to a contract process that's been open and fair for two years. Nobody objected to this bidder. Then nobody objected to the Northrop teams being able to bid. And now, when Northrop wins, they're going to overturn it? I think that doesn't pass the lab test.

WELNA: As for the impact on American jobs, Northrop Grumman spokesman Randy Belote says as many as 25,000 workers in the U.S. stand to gain from the deal.

RANDY BELOTE: In fact, we're going to be in sourcing jobs from Europe into the United States. What we've indicated is that we will create 2,000 new jobs that don't exist today in Mobile, Alabama where these aircraft will be built. And we've identified 230 companies - U.S. companies - that will provide parts for the KC-45 which will have a 60 percent, you know, built here in the United States.

WELNA: Still, in an election year that's filled with anxieties about the economy and foreign competition, the Air Force tanker contract is bound to get a lot more scrutiny. Boeing today demanded that briefing from the Air Force on why it lost its bid be moved up from next week to this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the deal is causing great concern.

HARRY REID: And I think it's something we need to take a look at. I think at the very least, there should be congressional hearings of (unintelligible) jurisdiction to look into this, to see if everything was done appropriate.

WELNA: In fact, Air Force officials are to appear tomorrow before a House panel to defend their decision.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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