Defense industry says Sen. Lieberman will be ‘hard to replace’

The retirement of Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman will remove from Capitol Hill a powerful proponent for robust Pentagon spending and weapons programs.

Lieberman, a hawk on foreign policy, has long been considered a friend of defense contractors, both in Connecticut and across the country. With his retirement still two years away, the senator will still have a chance to shape a number of critical foreign-policy debates, including over withdrawal from Afghanistan, analysts say.

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“He is a giant of the Senate, to me just as important on national security as [Sen. Edward] Kennedy [D-Mass.] was on health or [Sen. Bill] Bradley [D-N.J.] on finance or [Sen. Pete] Domenici [R-N.M.] on the deficit,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution. “In that regard he is very, very hard to replace. With luck we will be through the worst of the Afghanistan experience before he leaves, but other challenges where his wise counsel would help the nation surely loom ahead.”

The Democrat-turned-Independent’s retirement announcement comes about one year after another powerful Connecticut senator, Chris Dodd (D), announced he would leave the chamber. Those departures will leave some defense firms looking for new champions in the Senate.

 “With both of the state’s senators departing Congress, companies like United Technologies will have to scramble to shore up their support on Capitol Hill,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

Lieberman’s influence will soon be missing from battles over U.S. weapon programs, including one he opposed: the still-unresolved tussle over a second engine for the F-35 fighter fleet. Pratt & Whitney, a unit of Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp. (UTC), makes the primary engine for that fighter.

Even as he mulled retirement in recent weeks, Lieberman blasted the alternative engine project after officials announced a continuing resolution would keep alive the second engine, which is being developed by GE and Rolls-Royce.

“It is unconscionable that while the Air Force and Navy struggle to sustain their essential programs under the constraints of a continuing resolution, the administration could be forced to waste one more dollar on this unnecessary second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter,” Lieberman said in a Dec. 21 statement.

Lieberman cemented his favorable reputation with defense firms when he advocated for more models of combat systems like the Lockheed Martin-made F-22 fighter and the Boeing-built C-17 air lifter even when Air Force and Pentagon officials argued against them.

Some critics, however, have not been impressed by Lieberman’s advocacy.

“His role in defending the F-22 program is a prime example of him allowing the defense industry to foist an unneeded program — one even the Air Force said it didn’t want — onto taxpayers,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

Lieberman has at times teamed up with conservative Republicans like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri in fights to maintain weapon programs that the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama wanted to terminate or overhaul.

Pratt does engine work in Connecticut, while another UTC unit builds Black Hawk helicopters. General Dynamics designs and builds submarines for the U.S. Navy at its Electric Boat shipyard. And firearms-manufacturer Colt Inc. leads the list of smaller defense firms that have a presence in the state.

“Connecticut has ranked dead last in job creation among the 50 states in recent years, and the cost burden on industry from taxes, utilities and healthcare is driving companies out of the state,” Thompson said. “In such circumstances, having a strong personality with lots of seniority like Lieberman in the Senate can make the difference for some companies between sticking around in Connecticut and leaving.”

Thompson called Lieberman “a strong defender of Connecticut’s military contractors at a time when they were increasingly besieged by competitors in other states and other countries.”

But where some see advocacy to benefit his state, others see a cozy relationship with the defense industry based, at least in part, on campaign cash.

“The defense industry is losing one of its biggest cheerleaders on Capitol Hill,” Brian said. “Taxpayers expect their members of Congress to provide aggressive oversight of defense spending, but Sen. Lieberman more often played the role of caddy to the defense industry, rather than watchdog.”

United Technologies has donated more to Lieberman during his political career than any other company, individual or political group, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm has donated over $250,000 to Lieberman’s coffers since 1998.

General Dynamics donated $46,150 just during the 2005-2010 span, according to the Center.

Lieberman’s office was unavailable to provide a comment, citing staffers traveling to his retirement announcement event in Connecticut. Aides have been quoted in recent years depicting advocacy for defense firms located in his state as smart politics that benefits his constituents.

Corporate ties aside, the Senate will miss Lieberman’s knowledge on security issues, O’Hanlon said.

“Since Lieberman was generally a centrist, it’s not his positions on issues that will be missed, so much, but the quality of his arguments, the degree of his knowledge, the carefulness of his judgments, the nonpartisan quality of his thinking,” O’Hanlon said, “and indeed his bravery in the face of partisan attacks from both sides of the aisle —especially his own.”

Thompson added that his passion for national-security issues aided him during Senate debates “even when he was espousing home-state solutions.”