Freshman Dem pushes colleagues to keep carrier

Freshman Glenn Nye’s congressional future could depend on one aircraft carrier –- and he knows it.

The Virginia Democrat has been aggressively lobbying his House colleagues to support him in his fight to keep the Navy’s newest nuclear aircraft carrier in his Norfolk district.

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Nye made sure to contact all his colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee to support him in his efforts to stop any funding that could aide the home-porting: some members he approached on the House floor and some he personally called on the eve of the House Armed Services Committee mark up of the 2010 defense authorization bill.

“Nye was very well prepared, very thorough and very serious,” said one Democratic aide familiar with the conversation Nye had with a lawmaker.

An arcane Pentagon debate within the congressional defense committees could determine the fortunes of Nye, who is in the crosshairs of the GOP for next year’s election. The policy outcome can affect thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity related to housing an aircraft carrier.

And Nye is in an odd position: he is going against fellow Democrats in his quest to keep the carrier in Norfolk.

Nye is in a bare-knuckle fight against the Florida delegation, which wants the nuclear aircraft carrier housed at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla.  Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) is one of the Democrats on the opposite side of the ring.

Nye is one of the most vulnerable House members in the country, having defeated incumbent Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) in a conservative-leaning district in November.
 
He is one of several Democrats who benefited from increased black turnout thanks to the presence of President Obama on the ballot. His Virginia Beach district is more than one-fifth African-American, and went narrowly for President Obama, 50-48, after going 58-42 for President Bush in 2004.
 
In addition to the large military contingent, the district is home to Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club television program.
 
Nye has been labeled a top target by national Republicans, who are actively seeking an opponent.
 
Attorney and Marine veteran Chuck Smith (R) is already running, but national Republicans are looking elsewhere. Potential candidates include car dealer Scott Rigell and businessmen Ben Loyola and Ed Maulbeck.

Keeping the nuclear carrier is undeniably Nye’s No. 1 priority, and he’s not leaving it up to chance.

The carrier issue “is something that the people in the district care about certainly,” said Clark Pettig, Nye’s spokesman. The community cares about maintaining a strong military presence in the area, Pettig added.

Nye is not alone in his fight: he is flanked by Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.), both defense authorizers.

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 try to disperse the fleet.

After pressure from the Virginia delegation, and particularly Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a friend of President Obama, the Pentagon leadership has agreed to look at the Navy’s decision as part of a sweeping review of military strategy and capabilities due out early next year.

While Virginians are employing every political muscle to achieve their goal, 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 former president’s son and George W. Bush's brother, did not make it a secret that he wanted to see the carrier in Florida.

With the tightening Pentagon budget and an economic crisis, Virginians also have another argument: why spend at least $500 million to prepare the Mayport Naval Station to be the homeport for a nuclear carrier? Mayport is currently not capable of housing a nuclear carrier. Florida will need at least half a billion to build special maintenance facilities, road improvements and dredging at Mayport.

Nye this week scored an initial victory when he was able to block the Navy from spending $46.3 million on a dredging project on the St. Johns River so that the carrier would be able to come into the channel without sucking up river mud. Nye held his own in a late evening debate arguing that spending the money on the dredging before a final decision is made about the carrier is premature.

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But Nye does not have time to rest on his laurels. Several big fights are ahead of him. He managed to convince the panel to strip funding for the dredging project as part of the House Armed Services Committee version of the 2010 defense authorization bill. But that bill will have to go to the House floor where Floridians and their supporters can thwart Nye’s position.  Brown sent a letter this week to House members urging them to support funding the dredging project. The Pentagon requested that funding for its 2010 budget.  

“This project is not about Florida vs. Virginia,” Brown wrote to her colleagues. “This is about national security and ensuring we provide our Navy leaders with operational flexibility they need.”

The appropriators have to agree to cut the money out of the Pentagon’s 2010 spending bill. Florida has an advantage because many more members from that state are on the House committee.
 
The fight in the Senate Armed Services Committee will be harsh where Jim Webb (D-Va.) will go against Floridians Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R). The Senate Appropriations panel meanwhile has no Florida or Virginia representation.

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. The Navy also justified its preference to move a carrier to Mayport partly on its desire to disperse the fleet in the case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.