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Washington Lawmakers ‘Upset’ Over Tanker Rebid

Lawmakers from Washington state threatened congressional action as the Pentagon opened a second round of bidding for a $35 billion Air Force tanker contract.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawmakers from Washington state threatened congressional action Wednesday as the Pentagon opened a second round of bidding for a $35 billion Air Force tanker contract.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she will block Senate action on President Bush's nomination of Michael Donley to be Air Force secretary because she is not satisfied that he and Pentagon officials will conduct a fair rebid.

Under Senate rules, any senator can prevent action on a nomination or legislation by issuing a "hold," or block. Cantwell said she will continue the hold until her concerns about the tanker competition are resolved.

Other Washington legislators also took issue with a revised draft request for proposals to build 179 aerial refueling tankers to replace the Air Force's aging fleet.

The proposal, the latest in a six-year effort to secure new tankers, seems to favor the design offered by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., which is locked in a bitter battle with Boeing Co. for the lucrative deal, said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

The revision "includes substantive changes that appear to favor a tanker larger than any real-world scenarios would require," Dicks said.

"Since the department seems to be confused on what type of tanker it believes is needed at this time, I believe that moving forward with such a large procurement in such a precipitous manner is inadvisable, and I believe that it's time for Congress to exert greater control of this process," he said.

"After going round after round on one of our military's most important and critically needed procurements, this draft RFP (request for proposals) changes the rules of the game in overtime," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Murray said the Pentagon failed to adequately address the full cost of the airplanes over four decades of use and or to explain in detail how its proposal corrects errors identified in a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office.

The Northrop-EADS team won the contract initially, but Boeing protested, saying the Air Force did not conduct the process fairly. A GAO review found "significant errors" in the decision, and the Pentagon opened a second round of bidding Wednesday.

The revamped competition focuses on areas where auditors found problems with the initial process. Both companies have indicated their bids will be similar to their original proposals.

A final version of the request for proposals is expected to be released to both companies on Aug. 15 with bids due Oct. 1 and a decision by the end of the year.

While the Pentagon made some improvements, Washington lawmakers said, they asserted that the plan still seems to favor Northrop's larger plane.

"We need a close review of the draft RFP to make sure that all the problems identified by the GAO are fully addressed, and there should be no extra credit for a larger tanker," Cantwell said.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes the Everett plant where Boeing would make the planes, said he had a number of questions about the new draft proposal -- including the lack of consideration given to the U.S. industrial base. Boeing's version would be made in Everett and modified in Wichita, Kan., while the Northrop plane -- based on the Airbus 330 -- would be assembled in Alabama.

Larsen said he will review the new proposal carefully and work with colleagues from other states "to ensure that the Defense Department and the Air Force don't make the same mistakes again. They will be held accountable for a fair, open and transparent process."

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