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Congress’s budget strife puts Va. shipyard jobs in danger, senators say

Virginia lawmakers say Congress’s plan to continue funding the government at current levels will stall the construction of aircraft carriers in Norfolk, threatening jobs and putting national security at risk.

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) last week urged Republican leaders to approve $500 million in new spending to keep fabrication of parts for the USS Enterprise on track at Newport News Shipbuilding.

The Norfolk-area company is the sole designer and builder of aircraft carriers for the Navy.

The House on Friday passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a plan that includes preparations for the new carrier and a host of other military programs, including an upgrade to the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine fleet.

But the new projects will not be funded as long as lawmakers continue to disagree about how to pay for them. Republican leaders are expected this week to release the details of a continuing resolution that could make an exception for the carriers and submarines.

Weeks after he and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the election, Kaine has blamed President-elect Donald Trump for putting shipbuilders in limbo.

“Trump campaigned on, ‘I want to do all these good things for the military,’ but has asked the House, ‘Don’t do an appropriations bill.’ This injects tremendous uncertainty into the process,” Kaine said.

Trump asked Republican leaders in Congress to delay action on spending bills until after he takes office in January. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) agreed, saying he would pass a continuing resolution, a stopgap measure, to maintain current spending levels until March.

The USS Enterprise will not be finished until 2025, but Warner and Kaine said special steel must be made now to produce shaft forgings, propulsion machinery, major pumps and large complex valves.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense, said lawmakers are still figuring out what to include in the continuing resolution.

“While no final decisions have been made, providing appropriations necessary to maintain national security programs is central to those discussions,” Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said an overall budget plan would avoid delaying the carriers and more than 140 programs, according to the Pentagon.

“So far, Republicans have made no attempt to take these scores of problems into account as they write a bill to put spending on autopilot, preferring instead to pick and choose a few of their favorite programs,” Durbin spokesman Ben Marter said.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said the specialized workers required to make the carriers are particularly vulnerable to the whims of Congress.

“We can’t tell you we’re going to lay you off for a couple of months while Congress gets its act together and then we’re going to have you come back to work,” he said. He called aircraft carriers “the cornerstone of our ability to project power around the world.”

A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls Industries, the shipyard’s corporate parent, said it is too early to quantify the potential effect of flat funding or say how many jobs could suffer.

Wittman is one of four Republicans competing for their party’s nomination to run for governor next year. He chairs the readiness subcommittee on armed services, but he said he hopes next year to move over to the seapower and projection forces subcommittee, where he could have direct influence over the nation’s fleet.

He said a promotion could alter his plans, perhaps eliminating some competition for the Republican nomination.

“My plans haven’t changed, but I tell folks the world around me has. We’ll see where we are in the next couple of weeks,” Wittman said.

Virginia has been losing influence on military matters as senior members of its congressional delegation have lost seats or retired in recent years.

In 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary, and Democrat James P. Moran and Republican Frank R. Wolf retired. Then-Reps. Scott Rigell (R) and Robert Hurt (R) declined to seek reelection this year, and Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R) lost in the primary after switching districts.

Lawmakers have so far stymied Florida’s efforts to station a carrier in Jacksonville, thereby protecting Norfolk’s status as the only East Coast home to the nation’s fleet.

Forbes — the current chair of the Seapower subcommittee — has been mentioned as a possible Navy secretary in the Trump administration.

Forbes declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that Congress should fund the carriers: “If funding for carrier construction is arbitrarily held to last year’s levels, it will inevitably cause inefficiencies and delays with our carrier fleet already understrength, we cannot allow Congress’s failure to pass a budget to delay the delivery of more ships.”

Congress mandates 11 carriers, but there are 10 in operation.