Wis. delegation fights to keep funding for ships

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation are pushing their colleagues to ignore the wishes of President Barack Obama and preserve full funding for a Navy ship built in the state.

And so far, they are succeeding.

At issue is the littoral combat ship, which is built in Marinette, Wisconsin and Mobile, Alabama. Obama has proposed cutting a scheduled order of four littoral combat ships during the 2015 fiscal year to three of the ships. Doing so would mean that one of the cities would lose a ship order for that year.

Both states' delegations have rallied around the ship program, which has faced long term questions. They've pressed their colleagues to include full funding as Congress goes through a months-long appropriations and funding process. This week, the ships cleared an important hurdle, emerging intact from the House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

"There are some hurdles yet to go," said Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., who represents Marinette in Congress. "But this is an important step."

The next step will be a full vote on the House floor for the NDAA bill, then consideration by the House Appropriations Committee, likely sometime in early summer.

The effort to preserve funding for the ships in the 2015 budget has shown a bit of bipartisan defiance from Wisconsin's delegation, while also highlighting the importance of the littoral ship program to the state. About 2,000 jobs are directly linked with the program in Marinette with thousands more linked to it in the region. As a result, the program has strong support from members who are normally ideologically opposed.

Last week, members of the delegation sent letters to colleagues on House committees dealing with military spending urging them to ignore Obama's request to fund only three ships in the 2015 fiscal year. The letter said Congress should stick with funding for four ships, as previously planned, and noted that the littoral ships had become more affordable. Signatories included Republicans like Ribble and Rep. Sean Duffy as well as Democrats like Reps. Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan.

"The LCS is the rare military program that has seen costs decrease instead of increase over time," the letter reads, noting that prices are "locked in."

The delegation's push comes after Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put the program on notice in March. As Hagel outlined a vision for a more versatile military, he publicly questioned whether the littoral ships, as currently built, can deal with more modern weaponry.

Hagel has proposed cutting 20 of a planned 52 ship orders while the Navy studies what it needs.

The ship contracts that Wisconsin's delegation is currently fighting for were not affected by Hagel's proposal in March. They are part of the 32 ship orders that Hagel has said should go ahead. But Obama's 2015 budget would only fund three of them, creating a situation where one of the two cities that produce the ships could see a reduced workload.

Ribble and others say Navy leadership has remained supportive of the littoral ships. He said that more study by the Navy could also lead to modified ships that minimize the impact of Hagel's proposed cuts.

"I'm going to continue to be supportive of the littoral combat ship as long as the Navy is telling us they want them," Ribble said.

He said the Marinette facility, which is run by Lockheed Martin, would adjust to the Navy's needs and continue to do good work.

"They've spent the money, and now they have a state of the art facility and I will continue to advocate for it," he said.

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