Pentagon to Buy, Not Lease, 80 of 100 New Tanker Planes

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration and senior Republican lawmakers agreed Thursday to buy, rather than lease, 80 new aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force after critics complained that the government was giving Boeing Co. a sweetheart deal for a fleet of 767 jetliners.

Pentagon officials, who had proposed a long-term plan to lease 100 of the planes, acceded to demands from congressional critics to restructure the controversial, highly unusual $21-billion deal. Under the compromise, 20 of the planes will be leased and 80 bought, saving taxpayers an estimated $4 billion.

"Clearly there were significant individual members of the United States Congress who felt that there were better ways to approach this," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday, describing the deal as "acceptable to all parties."

The agreement, brokered by Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), was folded into the final version of the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2004, which began Oct. 1. The bill, which senior lawmakers agreed on Thursday, is expected to win House approval today and the Senate's blessing soon afterward.

Lawmakers and aides familiar with the bill said it also would expand benefits for disabled military retirees, ease citizenship application requirements for immigrants serving in the military and the reserves and resolve several disputes about Rumsfeld's plans to transform the Pentagon.

It would, for example, give the Defense secretary authority he sought in many new areas to strengthen oversight of his department's huge civilian workforce and to exempt the military from certain requirements of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. It would also repeal a decade-old prohibition on research into nuclear weapons with yields of less than 5 kilotons.

The bill would also authorize a $7.6-billion, seven-year grant program to help state and local governments hire firefighters, a provision sponsored by Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), according to a GOP aide. The provision, riding on the fast-moving bill, could help California and other fire-scarred Western states respond to future blazes.

On military matters, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bill leaves largely intact the Pentagon's plans for consolidating domestic military bases. An earlier law allows a round of base closures in 2005, but members of Congress had sought language to protect some of their home-state bases.

Spratt said he planned to vote for the bill despite misgivings over some provisions. "There's a lot of stuff in the bill that I support," he said.

The bill's chief sponsors are Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Associated Press quoted Hunter as saying: "This is a great bill. It makes sweeping reforms that will accrue to the benefit of men and women in uniform."

A key area of contention in negotiations was Hunter's proposal to force the Pentagon to rely more on U.S. companies for military contracts. The administration, seeking to protect its ability to procure weapons and components from foreign sources, sought to water down the provision.

Some of Hunter's "Buy American" language made it into the bill, but his domestic-source requirements were essentially eliminated.

Veterans' groups scored a major victory under the bill, as lawmakers agreed to a provision that would allow certain disabled military retirees to collect both disability benefits and full retirement benefits. The issue, known as "concurrent receipt," has been a priority for veterans for decades.

Advocates said military retirees, unlike other government retirees, were unfairly denied full retirement benefits if they also received disability payments. Bob Manhan, director of national security and foreign affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the provision included in the bill "a great victory" that could boost the monthly income of about 150,000 disabled military retirees.

On another contentious issue -- immigration -- lawmakers agreed to accept most of a Senate-passed provision that would shorten the length of time that immigrants in the U.S. military must wait to apply for U.S. citizenship. About 37,000 legal permanent residents are on active duty in the armed forces, and an additional 13,000 are in the reserves. At least 14 so-called green-card troops have been killed during the Iraq war, lawmakers say.

Inclusion of the provision was a victory for Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), who sponsored a similar House bill. Solis said the legislation heading toward enactment would extend naturalization benefits to active-duty members and reservists, and ease immigration rules for certain family members of soldiers killed on duty.

"It's a wonderful gift to the families," Solis said. "There is a significant impact in our community that will be felt."

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