- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey has been a staunch supporter of President Obama, but that changed abruptly last week when the administration proposed hitting the eight-term Democrat where it hurts - cutting the Marine One helicopter program and the hundreds of jobs it supports in Mr. Hinchey's upstate New York district.

Mr. Hinchey is one of many Capitol Hill Democrats standing up for local interests by declaring war on the Obama administration's suggested defense budget cuts, which threaten production facilities and jobs in states and districts from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South.

“I firmly believe [Defense Secretary Robert M.] Gates' recommendation is misguided and ignores the fact that the safety and security of the president requires the replacement of the current fleet of presidential helicopters,” said Mr. Hinchey, whose district includes a Lockheed Martin production facility with 4,000 employees.

While the helicopter has been criticized for ballooning costs and production delays, Mr. Hinchey said the Pentagon “cannot walk away from a program that is so critical to the safety of the president and that also has a significant economic impact.”

The 2010 defense budget would grow by an overall 4 percent under both the House and Senate budget resolutions passed earlier this month, but Mr. Gates a week ago laid out a series of sweeping program cuts to save money.

He called for eliminating several weapons systems, including the F-22 Raptor, the VH-71 Marine One helicopter and the Navy's DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer. He also proposed shaving $1.4 billion from missile-defense programs and rebidding contracts for ground vehicles for the Army's Future Combat Systems program.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gates' announcement drew a harsh reaction from dozens of congressional Republicans. But the proposed cuts are also forcing some of Mr. Obama's most reliable Democratic supporters, including those in the congressional leadership, to speak out.

Rep. John B. Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he is “extremely concerned” about the elimination of the F-22, which risks 2,000 jobs in his state of Connecticut.

“Our nation cannot afford that kind of blow right now - not when we are experiencing such severe crises in other parts of our manufacturing sector, like the auto industry,” he said.

Mr. Larson and Connecticut's four other House members, all Democrats, joined Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat, and Joe Lieberman, an independent, in signing a letter of protest to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Larson, the No. 4 Democrat in the House, vowed to fight the cuts on Capitol Hill.

“We have won this fight before, and we will win it again and keep these jobs in Connecticut,” he vowed.

Rep. Laura Richardson, California Democrat, said she will fight to keep the C-17 military cargo plane program, which under Mr. Gates' proposal would receive no further orders.

Boeing employs about 5,000 people at a Long Beach, Calif., facility assembling the planes.

“This is the last manufactured cargo plane in the country, and I think as we continue to rely upon foreign countries to do maintenance and manufacture our very vital equipment, I think it's dangerous and it's very shortsighted” to cut the program, said Mrs. Richardson, who stressed that her concerns are for the nation's overall safety as well as for her district's economy.

In announcing his budget proposal, Mr. Gates said he knew the cuts could spark a fight on Capitol Hill.

“My hope is that, as we have tried to do here in this building, that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole,” he said.

But Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, attacked the idea of shrinking the Navy - whose Atlantic headquarters are in Norfolk - while China beefs up its own armed forces.

“I have a very strong view - one developed over many years - that we must grow the Navy's force structure for us to meet our strategic and security interests around the world now and those we are likely to face in the future,” said Mr. Webb, a former Navy secretary who also criticized Mr. Gates for making such extensive recommendations “in the absence of a comprehensive strategy.”

Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, blasted the proposal to slash the missile-defense program, under which Fort Greely, Alaska, maintains 20 long-range interceptor missiles.

“I can't imagine a worse time to talk about cutting the missile-defense program, with North Korea playing games with international peace and security,” he said. “I can't support these cuts, as the missile-defense program at Fort Greely is a key part of the strategic defense of our state and our country.”

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