Murtha presses forward with tanker program

The chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee said he will use the upcoming war emergency supplemental bill to jumpstart a controversial refueling tanker program.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) has been advocating splitting a $35 billion midair refueling tanker between bitter rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman is teamed with EADS North America, parent company of Airbus.

Murtha told a defense conference on Thursday that he has been working on a proposal that would fund two tankers to be built a month, instead of just one, as initially projected. Boeing and the Northrop Grumman-EADS team would compete for the contract. However, the company that presents the best offer would get to build the larger number of tankers, and the second best a lesser number.

"That way we can ensure competition," Murtha told reporters. "There is nothing more related to the war than tankers."

Murtha said that he is initially eyeing the remainder of the fiscal 2009 supplemental to allocate money for the competition and some development costs for the tanker.

He also said that he talked to his Senate counterpart, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), about splitting the tanker contract and that Inouye agrees with the split buy. Inouye has not made any public statements in this regard.

Murtha added a caveat to his proposal for the tankers, saying that it could fall by "the wayside." Murtha has little time to get overall support for his proposal. The 2009 supplemental would have to be approved by May. Some Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill are reluctant to support splitting the contract, or oppose it outright.