WASHINGTON – A $640.5 billion defense authorization bill that gives the Air Force the green light to move A-10 jet fighters out of Fort Smith is heading to President Obama for his signature.
The House on Thursday approved the bill, 315-107, and the Senate voted Friday, 81-14. The entire Arkansas delegation voted in favor.
On Wednesday, congressional negotiators made up of members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to allow the Air Force to move ahead with planned mission changes for the 188th Fighter Wing as well as another in Iowa and Ohio.
Congress had overwhelmingly approved a freeze on the Air Force after the service proposed sweeping reductions to the Air National Guard as part of its 2013 budget.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., spoke on the Senate floor against the provision that will allow the Air Force to remove the A-10 jet fighters.
"I am so upset. In fact, my staff has even said livid, about how one item has been handled by the Air Force here," Pryor said.
Pryor went on to explain that the Air Force had stonewalled him – and the rest of Congress – for 10 months as they sought a deeper explanation into the decision to reduce particular Air Guard units.
Only in the last few weeks had top Air Force brass admitted that there was no business analysis or base-by-base review. Simply, they needed to cut their budget and basically "your number came up," Pryor said.
Adding insult to injury, Pryor said the 188th was contacted last week and asked if they could deploy one more time because another unit was not ready to go. The 188th has just completed a tour for the very same reason.
"As we wean out some units – and it is going to happen – but you should keep the best units and the strongest units you have. The 188th in Fort Smith, Arkansas is the best unit in the system. I say that objectively because there are numbers to back that up," Pryor said.
Pryor said he would vote for the defense authorization bill but wanted to put people on notice that the fight isn’t over.
"It (removing the A-10 fighters) is an arbitrary decision that I don’t think is in our national interest," he said.
Iowa Rep. David Loebsack, a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, was the lone voice to speak out against dropping the freeze when the bill was debated on the House floor Thursday.
"I strongly oppose allowing plans to significantly cut the Air National Guard embodied in this bill," Loebsack said. "Before an irreversible decision is made, we must have the strategic and cost benefit justification. This 11th-hour proposal still does not provide that justification and should not move forward."
Loebsack, who was one of the conference negotiators, did not sign the report and voted against the bill. Iowa Reps. Bruce Braley, Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham also voted against it. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, voted for it.
Latham, also introduced legislation Thursday, to require an independent cost-benefit analysis be conducted before the Air Force moves ahead with any mission shifts.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
"We will continue to do what we can to make our case, because we make a great case," Womack said.
Latham’s bill has little chance of moving forward in the dwindling days of the 112th session and will likely need to be resurrected in January when a new Congress is sworn into office.
Griffin and Womack said they voted in favor of the defense authorization bill because the funds it authorizes are vital to the military.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., also said that as a nation at war he would support the final bill but would continue the fight for the 188th through other means.
"We are a nation at war, and the military needs the funding and the provisions in this bill," he said.
Womack said the Arkansas delegation is united in its commitment to the 188th. He is hoping to land on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee next year so that he has a stronger voice on military issues.
If the delegation is unable to convince the Air Force to retain the A-10s in Fort Smith, Womack said Thursday that they would work tirelessly to ensure there is a reasonable alternative.
"It should be a flying mission but absent that then I think we need to get the very best deal we can," he said.