Washington, Alabama Fight Over Tanker Contract Boeing and Northrop Grumman are vying for a $35 billion deal to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of tankers. Politicians from the two states — where the planes would be assembled — are engaged in a war of words.
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Washington, Alabama Fight Over Tanker Contract

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Washington, Alabama Fight Over Tanker Contract

Washington, Alabama Fight Over Tanker Contract

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

NPR's Debbie Elliott has this Reporter's Notebook.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: First the story. 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, Alabama.

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

In my recent story, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, had this to say about why the work should be done in her state.

Representative PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington State): I have stood on the line in Everett, Washington, where we have thousands of workers who go to work every day to build these planes. I would challenge anybody to tell me that they've stood on a line in Alabama and seen anybody building anything.

ELLIOTT: That raised the ire of Alabama politicians. Bradley Byrne, a Republican candidate for governor who is from Mobile, calls her comments a calculated effort to belittle the technical expertise of Alabama workers.

Mr. BRADLEY BYRNE (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Alabama): The audience is the Pentagon and it's sort of an easy pickings to say, well, you know, those folks down South, they're dumb and they can't do this sort of thing.

ELLIOTT: Byrne has invited Murray to come see the state's shipbuilding, auto manufacturing and aerospace industries on his dime. She hasn't responded or 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's set off a war of words between Mobile and Seattle editorial writers.

Lost in the rhetoric, 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.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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