Washington — Sen. John McCain has attacked the Senate defense spending bill for including what he calls gross amounts of excess spending. His top example: a program for the Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767s to replace its aging refueling fleet.
The Arizona Republican suggested stripping the leasing plan from the defense bill. Instead, he settled Friday for a provision letting the president spend the money for other defense purposes if he decides national security or lives are at stake. The Senate approved.
The threat may be just one of many the deal faces as it goes through the appropriations process to reach the president's desk. If successful, the program would mean billions for Boeing, and Kansans are hoping that would translate to jobs in Wichita, Kan.
The deal would allow the Air Force to lease 100 tankers, built from Boeing 767s, for $20 million each per year. The exact value of the 10-year program won't be available until a production schedule is approved.
McCain called the proposal a "sweet deal" that should be the envy of corporate lobbyists. "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this before," he said during debate.
Air Force tankers, called KC-135s, have proven essential to recent military missions, including lengthy trips over Afghanistan.
But their average age is over 40 years. And Boeing is hoping to position the 767 wide-body jet as the next-generation airframe.
The leasing plan is designed to help both the Air Force, with fleet modernization, and Boeing as it deals with sagging commercial aircraft sales after the terrorist attacks. The Chicago-based aerospace giant announced layoffs of as many as 30,000 people, with many from its commercial aircraft plant in Wichita.
McCain complained that the Air Force never made a formal request for the tankers and the costly contract would be awarded without a congressional hearing or competition from other bidders like the European aircraft consortium Airbus Industrie. He also doesn't want the aircraft to be leased because the government will have nothing to show after the lease expires.
"It is absolute insanity," McCain said. "This is a bailout for Boeing aircraft nothing more, nothing less."
Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Kansas Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback and other supporters, countered that the fleet is aging and costing taxpayers money to repair. In letters to Murray and other lawmakers, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche has strongly endorsed moving ahead with the leasing program.
"Would John McCain have us buy French airplanes for the U.S. Air Force?" asked Murray's spokesman Todd Webster, a reference to opening bidding to Airbus.
The 767 debate comes on the heels of a heated dialogue between McCain and Murray over establishing safety requirements on Mexican trucks traveling U.S. highways.