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Extended Interview: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

May 6, 2008 at 5:30 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: This process for this tanker was a new way of approaching things, was it not?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY, D-Wash.: The Air Force has been telling us for a number of years that they need to replace an aging tanker workforce, that the planes were old, they’re costing us a lot of money, the maintenance is very high, and they need to be replaced. They told us that the small-medium sized air refueling tankers were absolutely critical, not just to the Air Force but to the Marines, the Army, National Guard, Coast Guard, everyone refuels using these tankers.

The reason the tankers are so important is they literally allow America to control the skies and to protect us, whether it’s war time or peace time, and they consistently have told us throughout the time that they need a mid-sized refueling tanker because it can land on air spaces and airstrips that are in third-world countries, it can deploy a number of times and refuel a number of different sized planes that fly at different speeds and have a number of them up in the air at the same time so they could keep a large number of aircraft up in the air in theater.

So it was a shock to all of us when the contract came through and we bought a huge plane that can’t land on numerous airstrips, that isn’t very agile, that can only fill a smaller number of our airplanes that are up in the air and has other problems when it comes to other aspects of the military.

So that alone was a real shock, but I think second to that was the shock I heard at home, and I actually I think we’re hearing across the country that we’re giving away $40 billion for another company controlled by other countries to build the backbone of our military, that we are not going to rely on American workers, American ingenuity. Americans know how to protect our men and women who are in those planes. And even worse, 10 years from now, we’ll have lost the engineering machinist capability to build those planes.

KWAME HOLMAN: You thought Boeing was almost a shoe-in for this contract. You appraised the process as recently as last fall?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Sure, because we had been consistently told by the Air Force, at the top levels, up to Secretary (Michael) Wynne, they wanted a medium-sized plane that was agile, that could land on airstrips and could work for all the military. The Boeing plane that they submitted was that kind of tanker. Secretary Wynne himself said we wanted a medium-sized plane, not a tanker that tanks. That’s exactly what Secretary Wynne said. So when, all of┬áa sudden, the bids were opened and they tell us it’s going to be a huge tanker that doesn’t meet those qualifications that’s a real surprise to us.

KWAME HOLMAN: Did you get a feeling before the announcement that Northrop was getting ahead?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well, what we had been told was that there was considerable pressure from members of Congress to make sure that we had a competitive bid. The Air Force worked very hard to make sure that there wasn’t just one bidder. Harder and harder in today’s world when there’s fewer airplane manufacturers. But they had to do that because there was pressure from Congress to have a competitive bid.

What we were told probably a year or so ago was that in order to have that second bid, to have Airbus and EADS at the table, they needed to change the contract to allow larger plane into it, not to award a larger plane, but to allow a company that builds larger planes, but never did the Air Force say we want a bigger plane. They still were saying we want a medium sized tanker that is agile that meets our military needs.

KWAME HOLMAN: What role do you think if any (Arizona Republican) Sen. (John) McCain had here?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well I think there was tremendous pressure from Senator McCain to make sure we had a competitive bid, and again I don’t have a problem with a competitive bid. I do have a problem with changing the way that the bids are evaluated to a point where the Air Force now has a plane they did not want, they’re now having to defend it because they put this out there, but when you talk to military, the military, they need an agile tanker that can land in multiple airstrips around the world, soft landings that can park in our current maintenance facilities, and we didn’t get that.

Size of airplanes and subsidies

KWAME HOLMAN: Is that your strongest criticism of the Airbus EADS proposal that is, the plane is too big, can't be handled at the fields where it's needed?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: I have a number of serious concerns. Obviously the A-330 platform can't land at numerous airstrips. We know right now that that plane is too big to land at most American airstrips. We're talking about a tanker that needs to be in the middle of where we are at war, in the Middle East where we don't have a lot of hard runways. Around the globe, in places that are hard to imagine needs to be able to land. So certainly that's a problem.

I have a problem as someone who's in charge of appropriations knowing that the military is going to have turn around and tell us they need additional dollars to be able to park these larger planes once they're built in the hangars that we have today.

But I have a huge problem as well because I have worked long and hard because the fact that Airbus gets launch aid and subsidies that are illegal and we now, America, have them at the World Trade Organization in court, so to speak, saying that that's illegal and we need, we need to take them to the WTO on this. So with one hand, America saying Airbus and EADS, you are doing something illegal, we're taking you to the world court to get this resolved, and we're turning around and handing them a $40 billion-plus contract. That doesn't make sense. And that is an administration problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: What about the argument outside that you've heard that all these providers, Airbus, EADS, Boeing are international companies all do international business. Buy America didn't apply in this situation, what about that?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well I am someone who believes in trade. I come from a state that is very heavily trade dependent. I have voted for trade agreements, but there's two problems with that. No. 1, you have trade agreements so that you have a way to take someone to court if you will if they're not complying with the world wide regulations. So that's important that we, we absolutely have that court and would be able to take it there, not under my note with a contract like this.

But also remember that this is very different than buying one plane from someone or having supplies come from somewhere around the world. This is not only the platform entirely that it's going to be built overseas, in Spain, in Germany, in France, it is $40 billion which includes research and development money that will allow a foreign company, owned by foreign governments to develop what we now have in America, which is the ability to refuel all of our military airplanes. We're, we're giving our competitors a way to control the sky for nothing, we're paying for it.

Generating jobs in the U.S.

KWAME HOLMAN: Isn't your friend and colleague (Sen.) Dick Shelby (R-Ala.) going to tell us this week that 60 percent of the Airbus EADS work will be done in the U.S.. but almost 50,000 jobs will be involved and that he'll be the beneficiary, Alabama will be of a southeastern corridor economic development?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: I love the dream, I don't believe it, but even more importantly putting the sticker on the plane in the United States that says "Made in America" doesn't make it American made. We're talking about the entire tanker being built overseas and shipped over here for some end process. We're giving a foreign company owned by foreign countries the capability, the research and the development of the absolute backbone of our entire military air fleet and to me, as Americans, I worry about our security, what we're giving away, and what we're going to do 10, 15, 20 years from now when it's too late.

KWAME HOLMAN: And do you reject completely Northrop Airbus' numbers on 60 percent U.S. made, almost 50,000 jobs?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Listen, you know I've been very concerned about the illegal subsidies that Airbus has used for a very long time. I have pushed the Bush administration for a number of years to stand up for our trade agreements and work with our companies here to make sure that there is an even playing field.

What I've found when I began this many years ago that Airbus was very good at public relations, very good at hiring a lot of lobbyists, and very good at advertisements and saying numbers out of the air, hundreds of thousands of jobs created, so I asked the Department of Commerce and the chamber of commerce to take a look at their real numbers, and they are greatly exaggerated. I think of the hundreds of thousands of jobs they said that they had here in this country. It was only like 500. So I have a hard time now believe some pie-in-the-sky numbers that are just being rolled around Washington, D.C., in order to convince people that this is some kind of job creation.

But regardless of all of that, I think there is a huge concern for many Americans today that they want to make sure our men and women, Americans who are flying these planes, best of the best, we're putting, you know, their lives at risk in these airplanes, that we don't want them built someplace where we don't have the ability to know that security is absolutely prime. I've gone out and I've talked to Boeing suppliers, I've talked to, and they supply Airbus as well, and they tell me the security that they have to have to make sure nothing is tampered with on these planes is very important.

We have that tanker, that platform built overseas, we lose that ability to control it. So we lose the ability to make sure our airmen and women are absolutely secure. We lose our ability in this country to be able to build this tanker in the future because we will no longer be building it, so we lose our engineers and designers and machinists. We don't have the capability to re-get this back and we give a country $40 billion to provide jobs overseas when our economy is in trouble, for all those reasons there's a huge problem with this deal.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... Northrop says the 330 would be brought in and then when it's time to militarize it, that would be done under secure specifications at the appropriate place here in the U.S.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well that is interesting on paper and as some of my constituents call this paper airplane, it looks good on paper, but it's never been done. And we don't know and no one can tell us where all of that will be done and in fact, just for the research and development, R & D portion of this, Airbus and EADS is going to have to know a lot of information about our Army planes, Marine planes, National Guard planes, Coast Guard planes, and Air Force airplanes in order to design the plane to begin with. So we're going to be giving away some of our military information to a company that again is controlled by countries, some of which are not friends of the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: Speaking of paper airplane, of course Northrop says, unlike Boeing we have built, tested, flown and Boeing has not.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Boy, tell that to the people on the line at the Boeing machine shop who for decades have been building these tankers, know them inside and out. Have such tremendous pride. You know I was out on the Boeing line with the machinists who've been building these planes, some of them generational workers who tell me, you know they put those rivets in, they work on that line, knowing that plane is going to go up in the air and carry American men and women who are serving our country. They don't think that kind of pride in ownership and protection of their sons and daughters is going to happen overseas.

Impacts on Boeing

KWAME HOLMAN: Did Boeing somehow miss the boat?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: First of all I want to address cost, and then I'll address the second question. Why can't Airbus provide a plane that is less cost than the plane that we've been building here for decades because of their illegal subsidies, which we have them at the WTO saying that that's illegal right now? So how smart is it for us to say on one hand, we're taking you to the world court here, the WTO because you are illegally subsidized, lowering the cost of your plane and making an unfair playing field and then giving them $40 billion to do it? They can provide a low cost plane because they have been providing them with the illegal subsidies, so that's a problem for me and for everyone. It should be for everyone.

As far as should Boeing have known? Well Secretary Wynne himself said not once, but many times, we need a mid-sized plane that is flexible, that can land in airstrips that are soft, that have the ability to be agile in the air and can fuel all of our planes. So why would Boeing think, gosh, we need a great big huge tanker to fulfill that requirement. That wasn't ever said to them. Or anybody else, or to us here in Congress. And I think that's a problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... What do you believe will happen -- if this decision stands -- in your state, to Boeing?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well it's hard to say, clearly you know the tanker line will go down I think in 2012. We won't build them anymore, certainly that will mean something to the workforce in my state. More importantly it means that 10 years from now, should we have a disagreement with the country that's controlling the Airbus platform, we won't be able to build that line up again. Those workers will go away. They'll do something else. They'll be reskilled, they'll retire. There's no question that we would not be able to rebuild that line again.

To my state economically, it will have some impact although they are, Boeing is doing quite well right now in terms of the other planes that they're working on and producing, but I think overall, for our country, we would be better off if we were providing economic opportunity for American men and women to be building an American plane, being flown by American men and women who are in the service.

KWAME HOLMAN: What do you see the result of all this lobbying and pressure being over the short term about this position?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Well I think it is a major question in front of the country today that all of us really have to think about. Do we want to give away to a foreign-owned company the backbone of our military? And what are the long-term consequences of that? I think that's a question everyone here in Congress should have to say yes or not. So we're looking at all the options right now.

Obviously this case is going before the GAO, they'll make a decision based on whether or not the contract was done correctly. But there is a larger question as well for Congress is are we going to be the generation that gives away our Air Force capability? Our military capability, our ability to control the skies and we have to live with that decision.