House Democrats poised to back Navy's plan for combat ship purchases


By Roxana Tiron


House Democrats are planning to back the Navy’s plan to buy 20 new littoral combat ships as part of a stopgap measure that would fund the government until Sept. 30, 2011. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) drafted a catchall spending measure, or continuing resolution (CR), that combines the budgets for all federal departments because Congress has not approved any 2011 spending bills. 

The Navy has been racing against the clock to receive congressional approval for a new strategy to buy littoral combat ships from two builders, rather than just one. The service needs congressional authority by Dec. 14, when the bids from the two competitors are set to expire. 

According to the draft of the yearlong CR, the secretary of the Navy “may award a contract or contracts for up to 20 littoral combat ships subject to the availability of appropriated funds for such purpose.”

The CR may come up for a vote in the House as early as this week. Some lawmakers have raised issues with the draft because it includes authorizing language in what is technically an appropriations bill. 

The CR may not be the Navy’s only chance to get the green light for its new buying strategy: As The Hill reported Saturday, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subpanel, has introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill designed to “improve” the Navy’s littoral combat ship program. 

Taylor’s amendment is co-sponsored by other senior Armed Services members, including Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.). The goal is to get the bill on the House’s suspension vote calendar, according to a congressional source.

If it passes the House, Taylor’s amendment would have to move through the Senate, where clinching support by unanimous consent would be necessary for an expeditious approval of the Navy’s new buying strategy. It’s unclear, though, whether that would be possible given the Senate’s crowded lame-duck calendar and the political sparring between Republicans and Democrats.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Nov. 3 told key lawmakers his service is considering buying 10 new shore-hugging ships from both Austal USA and a team of Marinette Marine and Lockheed Martin. The Navy’s rationale is that competition has significantly reduced the price of the ships, which are designed to sweep for mines in coastal waters, fight pirates and chase drug smugglers.

The initial plan was to buy only 10 ships from one winning contractor. The Navy cannot move ahead with the new proposal to use two shipbuilders without congressional authorization. 

The Navy’s acquisition chief, Sean Stackley, has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, while the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, and the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, have publicly made the case to use two shipbuilders.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who is slated to lead the Armed Services Committee next year, called the new strategy a “win-win” and said he’s working to facilitate it. He told The Hill the Navy could get “more ships for the same amount of money” and keep more people working on the project at the same time.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the Defense panel, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said recently that they are in favor of the Navy’s new proposal.

Alabama’s Republican senators — Richard Shelby, a defense appropriator, and Jeff Sessions, a defense authorizer — welcomed the Navy’s plan, as did another defense appropriator, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Southern Alabama could gain as many as 2,000 new jobs from the program, as Austal USA, a unit of Australia’s Austal Ltd., is based in Mobile. Wisconsin also stands to gain several thousand jobs since Marinette Marine, a unit of the Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri, is based in Marinette, Wis.

This story was first posted at 12:19 p.m. and updated at 7:11 p.m.