Governors escalate aircraft carrier battle

The governors of Florida and Virginia are escalating a political battle over where to dock a Navy nuclear aircraft carrier, and their dispute could threaten negotiations on Capitol Hill over the 2010 defense policy bill.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who is running for Senate, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), the head of the Democratic National Committee, have both written letters to key senators, seeking to influence a project that would likely determine whether Florida gets the carrier or if it stays with the entire East Coast fleet in Virginia.

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Whichever state ends up winning the right to house the carrier can expect a boost to the local economy of nearly $1 billion a year.

Lawmakers from both states have sparred over the location for years, and while a definitive decision has yet to be made, the Senate has given Jacksonville, Fla., some leverage by funding a project in the defense policy bill that would dredge a water channel and, in theory, help accommodate an aircraft carrier.

Congressional sources say the issue likely will have to be resolved at the Big Four level: the two chairmen and two ranking members of the Armed Services panels.

Crist fired the first salvo by sending a letter in mid-July to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leaders of the Senate Armed Services panel, urging them to insist on authorizing the dredging project at the Mayport Naval Station. Crist was a major backer of McCain’s presidential campaign.

Kaine followed with his own missive to Levin and McCain at the end of July, urging them not to fund the project and to save the Navy’s limited resources.

The Senate authorized $46 million for the project that the Navy requested for its 2010 budget, while the House scrapped the funding request in its 2010 defense authorization bill.

In his letter to the Senate, Crist made the case that dredging the Mayport Channel is essential for the naval station to eventually be able to house a nuclear aircraft carrier. What Crist did not count on was the Senate deciding to fund the dredging not necessarily to be able to support a nuclear carrier, but rather as a necessary project to ready Mayport for unforeseen emergencies and to take on other ships, said a congressional source familiar with the decision.

Also, the Senate sought to stave off for another year a protracted interstate fight over where East Coast carriers should be located, hoping to give the Obama administration time to form its own opinion on the issue through a sweeping review of strategies and capabilities, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The Navy late last year decided that it would make strategic and security sense not to homeport all its aircraft carriers on the East Coast in one location, but to try to disperse the fleet — a move that gave Florida the advantage.

After pressure from the Virginia delegation — including Kaine, who is a friend of President Barack Obama — the Pentagon leadership this year agreed to look at the Navy’s decision as part of the review, which is due out early next year.

The Florida delegation likely would have been able to make the case this year that the dredging is a necessary investment at the naval station, regardless of a nuclear carrier. But with Crist specifically pointing out in his letter that the project is essential to homeporting a nuclear carrier, the focus is back on the fight the Senate was trying to avoid.

“The governor did not help Florida’s position at all,” said the congressional source. The source added that Crist’s letter undercuts the Florida delegation’s assertion that the project is not tied to homeporting a nuclear carrier.

Now, with his letter, Kaine has raised the stakes higher.

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An arcane Pentagon debate within the congressional defense committees could determine several political fortunes. The policy outcome can affect thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity related to housing an aircraft carrier.

While Crist would score points for his Senate run, freshman Rep. Glenn Nye’s (D-Va.) congressional future could depend on whether he is able to prevent a nuclear carrier from going to Florida. Nye has been aggressively lobbying his House colleagues to support keeping the Navy’s newest nuclear aircraft carrier in his Norfolk district.

Nye, who is in the crosshairs of the GOP for next year’s election, does have help from two Virginia Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee: Reps. Randy Forbes and Rob Wittman. Nye earlier this summer was successful in stripping $46 million from the 2010 defense authorization bill and is prepared to fight to keep the funding out of the bill.

The conferees have not been officially selected, but the House and the Senate have lawmakers who are prepared to fight over this issue. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) are all Senate defense authorizers. Meanwhile, Virginia’s other Democratic senator, Mark Warner — a former governor — has also been talking to members of the panel about his state’s position on the carrier issue.

While Virginians argue that it does not make fiscal sense to spend money to ready another naval base for a nuclear carrier, they have long argued that the decision to move an aircraft carrier was inherently political. The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, and the most likely to go to Florida, is named after President George H.W. Bush. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the 41st president’s son and President George W. Bush’s brother, did not make it a secret that he wanted to see the carrier in Florida.

Mayport is not ready to house a nuclear carrier. Florida will need at least $500 million to build special maintenance facilities, make road improvements and dredge Mayport.

“The Navy should use its limited resources in more immediate needs and wait to prepare … Mayport to support a nuclear carrier,” Kaine said in his letter to the Senate.

But in his letter, Crist said that by not funding the dredging project, Congress would “jeopardize” Mayport’s chances of acquiring a nuclear carrier in the future.

Mayport was home to the conventionally powered John F. Kennedy carrier until it was decommissioned last March. Mayport will lose other ships, too. Ten frigates will be decommissioned by 2014, and the number of sailors will go down from 13,300 to fewer than 9,300.

Unless a carrier or other ships are added, the ship-repair industry around the area will deteriorate. Nelson and the Florida delegation have argued that having too many carriers in one port could create a strategic target for an enemy of the U.S.

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