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Amid Ukraine Crisis, Senators Eye State Defense Interests

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Despite the attention focused on Ukraine, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee was remarkable for another reason: it showed how lawmakers remain focused on bread-and-butter budget concerns even in times of international crisis.

Hagel did make some news by avoiding any commitment to send U.S. weapons to bolster Ukrainian forces. But some committee members seemed fixated on how his proposed defense spending cuts would affect jobs in their home states.

It was a good reminder of how senators are sent to Washington not just to represent the national interest, but their state’s interests as well.

Case in point: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., praised Hagel for choosing “the strategic priorities which I believe are the right ones for this nation. For example, on the need for (building) additional submarines at the rate of two per year” –- a perennial interest of the Connecticut congressional delegation which tries to protect jobs at the General Dynamics submarine plant in Groton, Conn., one of the state’s major employers.

The United States Strategic Command, in charge of the nation’s nuclear missiles, is based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., and so it was natural that Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., began her questioning of Hagel with the suggestion that “any additional reductions, whether it's going to be warheads or launchers, that's kind of premature, would you say? It's not really practical at this time?”

And Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., up for re-election this fall, complained to Hagel that his budget blueprint “would result in the inactivation of the Air Force's 440th Air Lift Wing from Pope Airfield at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. And with the 440th Air Lift Wing inactivated, there would be no Air Force planes stationed at Pope Airfield.” This would undercut the readiness of “the 82nd Airborne Division, and then all the other major units that we have at Fort Bragg.”

Another Democrat up for re-election this fall, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, told Hagel that while he’d been concentrating on “the significant crises we are facing throughout the world today, and the challenges ... for our national security, what I hear mostly from my constituents in New Hampshire is not really about those challenges. It's about what's happening to our men and women in uniform. It's about what's happening domestically in terms of our military and its footprint in the United States.”

I know how hard this is, but I don't want to see us wasting money.

She said, “Obviously, I represent a state which shares the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and so that's a big issue for us” and, she added, so is the Pease National Guard Base and the 157th Air Refueling Wing in her state.

With Hagel is aiming for another round of base closing and realignment (BRAC) in 2017, Shaheen fired a warning shot in defense of her state’s shipyard and bases.

“I certainly strongly disagree with another BRAC round at this time,” she said, suggesting that Hagel close bases in Europe first.

Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale, testifying alongside Hagel, told Shaheen that the Defense Department had already “cut a lot in Europe” but “we also know we have domestic infrastructure that is unneeded. We need to go after both. I know how hard this is, but I don't want to see us wasting money.”

A new BRAC round would “save $2 billion a year in perpetuity ... . We need your help on this one,” Hale said. But the Pentagon isn’t going to get any help from Shaheen if BRAC means closing the Portsmouth shipyard.

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