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Maine Senators Vow to Protect Shipyard Jobs as Sequester Looms
02/21/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Maine's two U.S. senators made several joint appearances today to put a spotlight on the looming threat of sequestration. Susan Collins, a Republican, and independent Angus King visited Maine's two biggest shipyards: Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They used the occasion to talk about the consequences of the $85 billion worth of automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts that are now barely a week away if no deal is reached in Washington. Tom Porter reports.

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"Part of the problem in Washington has been this blame game," says Sen. Susan Collins (shaking hands with a BIW worker in photo left), a senior member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Collins says Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for insisting on sequestration if his proposed tax hikes are not approved, while Democrats blame some Republicans, who are prepared to see sequestration go into effect if that's the only way budget cuts will occur. "I think we need to get beyond that, and we need to act what is in the best interests of our country," she says.

Joining Collins at Bath Iron Works Thursday morning, Sen. Angus King (with hand on chest in photo above) urged the White House to take a lead role. "Sen. Collins and I sent a letter to the president two days ago, urging him to step forward and become the catalyst for serious discussions to resolve this issue," King says.

King, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, says beyond the sequestration issue, Congress must also pass a defense spending budget in order to enable BIW, which is owned by General Dynamics, to go ahead with a multi-year procurement plan - something that would lay the groundwork for 10 more warships to be built.

Both senators stressed that failure to achieve this will cost more money in the long-term. "It's just totally irresponsible to allow the Department of Defense to keep operating on last year's budget, which is inadequate, creates tremendous uncertainty and ends up driving up costs," Collins says.

Sequestration meanwhile, is, according to the Pentagon, likely to mean about $41 million in Defense Department civilian payroll cuts in Maine, if it kicks in March 1. This would affect thousands of jobs.

Sen. King says the nation's security is already being affected. He points out that one U.S. aircraft carrier is being forced to stay in port rather than deploy to the Middle East, as it's meant to do, due to a potential lack of money for fuel.

"The most serious threat to the national security of the United States is the budget uncertainty in Washington, and I think that's shameful," King says. "I mean, that is something that's entirely within our control."

"I'm very concerned about the current situation," says Jeff Geiger, president of BIW, which employs about 5,200 people and builds destroyers for the Navy. He's worried by the long-term uncertainty regarding the yard's procurement prospects.

In the short-term, though, Geiger says BIW is more insulated than some facilities from the impact of any spending cuts, "because we tend to have long-term ship-building contracts that have been funded in prior fiscal years. So those contracts will continue to be executed with reasonable certainty."

There's less certainty, however, regarding the yard's several hundred technical employees, who provide maintenance services to the fleet. Geiger says their jobs could be under threat in the next six to nine months.

Collins and King also visited the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where defense analysts say looming budget cuts may be of even greater concern. That's because it specializes in repairing and maintaining submarines, and it's primarily maintenance dollars that will slashed if, and when, sequestration takes effect.

The Portsmouth yard employs about 4,500 workers.

Photos courtesy of Bath Iron Works



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