N.H. senators to fight military cuts that could affect Portsmouth shipyard
New Hampshire’s senators have vowed to fight a new round of proposed military cuts that could put the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the chopping block. And they are in a better position than most to keep open one of the state’s key economic drivers.
Both U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee and hold leadership positions on a key subcommittee that handles base realignment and closure, known as BRAC. Shaheen, a Democrat, chairs the subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, and Ayotte serves as the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member.
That two senators from one state hold such influence on a key vote is a rarity in Washington, and it underscores the challenge the Pentagon would face if it tried to close the shipyard.
“I don’t think it is all that common because many states have both senators in the same party,” said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College, in an email. “In the case of Shaheen and Ayotte, the state has one of each, and since it is a small state, the Portsmouth Naval Operation is a big deal for any lawmaker from N.H. The kind of selection bias so evident in their being on the same committee and subcommittee is a major reason why it is so difficult to cut the budget for defense or anything else.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is also known for being an advocate of the Portsmouth shipyard, and she is a member of the Senate’s Defense Appropriation Subcommittee.
Both Shaheen and Ayotte took strong stances in defense of the base yesterday, one day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a plan to scale back the size of America’s military.
“Another BRAC round would have serious consequences for our shipyard, our workers and our economy in New Hampshire,” Shaheen said in a statement, adding she will use her position at subcommittee chairwoman to “fight any efforts to advance another round.”
The Portsmouth shipyard is located in Kittery, Maine, but many of its 4,700 civilian employees are from New Hampshire. At one point last year, it faced a serious threat of closing in 2015. Congress rejected that proposal, but Hagel said this week he again plans to pursue closures, even without congressional approval.
During Defense Department confirmation hearings yesterday, Ayotte pressed the nominee for the department’s No. 2 post to say the department wouldn’t close bases without congressional approval. That nominee, Robert Work, said only that the Defense Department wouldn’t close bases by acting outside of the law. Ayotte wasn’t pleased.
“I take that as a lack of commitment and that troubles me . . . there should not be a run-around done,” she told him. “I would like to know from the Secretary, in particular, what authority he believes he does have, so we . . . can exercise appropriate authority to make sure that our voices are heard here on the policy matters.”
Base closings are just one piece of budget cuts that Hagel outlined Monday. The cuts would reduce the Army to its smallest size since before World War II, retire an Air Force fleet of A-10 “Warthog” planes, shrink military pay raises and seek greater contributions toward health insurance. Congress already set the budget total at $500 million, lower than in previous years due to sequestration, but Hagel’s comments this week outlined how that money could be spent. The full budget proposal will be released next week.
The proposed reduction in the Army from roughly 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 came in part because of the country’s withdrawal from two large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his speech, Hagel said the American military needs to become more agile and technologically focused.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said she understands the constraints the department is under given sequestration cuts, but is skeptical of a reduction in ground forces.
“I’m studying this proposal very closely. It’s going to be hard to convince me that a personnel cut this big is in the best interests of our national security, but I also recognize the difficulties faced by the Department of Defense,” she said.
Rep. Annie Kuster, who is on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, expressed concerns about weakening benefits for veterans.
“While I applaud efforts to cut costs and shrink our budget deficit, I remain committed to ensuring that New Hampshire service members and military families have the resources they need to protect our homeland safely and effectively,” she said in a statement.
For Ayotte, fighting the retirement of the A-10 fighter plane is another key priority. She called Hagel’s proposal to retire the plane a “serious mistake based on poor analyses and bad assumption” and plans to work within the Armed Services Committee to stop it from happening.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)