By Linda Martz and Deirdre Green
The House Armed Services Committee passed the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill Thursday -- a vital first step toward possibly saving more than 350 full-time jobs with the Ohio Air National Guard's C-27J mission at Lahm Airport.
The committee's version included a "strategic pause" amendment sponsored by California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack, and 16 other co-sponsors, including one Ohioan, U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley. The amendment would fund the National Guard more fully -- maintaining all Air National Guard aircraft and personnel at fiscal 2012 levels for fiscal 2013, and prohibit the Air Force and Army from dissolving current Guard missions through fall 2013.
"Obviously, the C-27J mission in Mansfield was one of those," said Anthony DeAngelo, a spokesman for Sutton.
The defense authorization bill is expected to go to the full House of Representatives next week. Next would be the Senate, probably in June, where some provisions may be seen as problematic.
The U.S. Department of Defense previously announced plans to retire C-27J aircraft as part of a massive round of budget cuts. About 350 full-time and almost 1,000 part-time Mansfield jobs could be salvaged if the amendment for a one-year strategic pause survives House and Senate votes.
"Getting it passed out of committee was the big step," DeAngelo said. "We really do believe this is going to pass the House."
Sutton strongly encouraged the Senate to follow the House Armed Services Committee's lead.
"After fiscal year 2013, it does kind of bring us back to square one, but hopefully does give time for us to reassess our options and the Department of Defense reconsider its decision," DeAngelo said.
Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., president of the National Guard Association of the United States, praised the committee's action.
"National Guard leaders across the country are encouraged by the House Armed Services Committee's action ... that would halt the Air Force's ill-advised and disproportionate cuts to the Air National Guard in the fiscal 2013 defense budget request," Hargett said.
"While this is a big step toward a legislative remedy, the journey continues. We now ask the Senate to also pause these cuts long enough to fix a budget process that for too long has given scant attention to defense needs at home."
Sutton said the proposed defense cuts are misguided.
"The men and women in uniform who serve in our National Guard did not create this recession or put people out of work," Sutton said. "When we dissolve National Guard units, we are not only hurting those in uniform and their families, we impose a negative impact on local small businesses and institutions."
A spokesperson for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the strategic pause amendment was good news and a positive step forward.
"Senator Brown has urged the Senate Armed Services Committee to preserve the C-27J program," spokeswoman Allison Preiss said. "Additionally, as a member of the appropriations committee, he has pledged to do whatever he can to ensure that this vital flying mission remains intact."
Brown, who grew up in Mansfield, asked Vice President Joe Biden in April to preserve the C-27J program. The senator also sent a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman April 17, arguing against eliminating M1A2 Abrams tank production in Lima and the C-27J transport mission in Mansfield.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also chimed in on the action.
"From the hearings and briefings we've had on the armed services committee, it's clear the amount of analysis that has gone into some of these Air Force budget proposals is totally insufficient and came to some misguided conclusions, like proposing to cancel the C-27J.
"Our colleagues in the House seem to have gotten the same impression. We're taking a hard look at how best to address this issue in our defense authorization bill."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also supported the measure.
"I'm pleased that the House Armed Services Committee has acted to preclude the proposed Air National Guard cuts for Fiscal Year 2013," Levin said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta slammed the measure, saying it adds billions of dollars to President Barack Obama's defense budget.
Just hours after the committee approved its $642 billion spending blueprint, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the panel's additions ignored the careful strategic review that was the basis for the 2013 budget proposal. They said if the Pentagon is prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft or reducing the size of the force, it might have to cut training or equipment.
"If members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness." Panetta said.
The bill adds up to $8 billion more than what Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer. The spending blueprint outlines a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. Obama had proposed $551 billion, plus $88 billion. The panel voted 56-5 for the measure, after more than 15 hours of bitter, partisan debate.
The House is expected to pass the bill next week, but the overall amount and several provisions stand little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee likely will craft a bill at a far lower amount, even below what Obama and Congress agreed to last summer.