WASHINGTON — Arkansas lawmakers said Wednesday there is little they can do now to stop Congress from giving the Air Force the green light to move A-10 jet fighters out of Fort Smith, but they will look next year for ways to reverse the decision or cushion the blow.
"This thing isn’t over," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. "We will work very hard to make sure the 188th has an enduring mission and one that is vital to national security."
The House and Senate are expected this week to send President Obama a $640.5 billion defense authorization bill that sets military policy for the fiscal year.
The bill, which will have an up-or-down vote in both chambers, includes a provision that would allow the Air Force to go forward with its plans to remove the A-10 mission from the 188th Fighter Wing.
The language was included in a conference report signed by House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday.
The Arkansas delegation issued a response early Wednesday expressing their disappointment with the conference report and expressing their resolve to fight for the 188th.
In separate interviews, delegation members reaffirmed their commitment to working together on the issue but have not laid out a clear plan of attack.
One thing for certain is that the delegation will not cast a protest vote against the defense authorization bill this week.
The legislation is too important to the military and the nation’s security to reject, said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
"We are a nation at war and the military needs the funding and the provisions in this bill. So, I will vote for it," Boozman said.
"If I thought voting no might somehow restore the freeze then that would be a different analysis. But voting against the defense bill is not going to change any of this," Griffin said.
In the coming year, Pryor said the delegation would try to put pressure on the Air Force to rethink its plan to remove the A-10 mission from Fort Smith. And, he noted that Congress could revisit the issue during the annual debate over defense spending.
Boozman noted that the Air Force has made no final decision on Fort Smith.
"We are going to continue to make our case that this is the most cost-effective unit by any measure. We will do all we can to protect those jobs, protect the current mission, and do all we can with whatever configuration they come up with to make sure the 188th and the facility there play a major role in the new Air Force," Boozman said.
Pryor said the door isn’t shut on a legislative solution either.
"This is a one-year authorization, so I don’t necessarily see any door completely closed. But it is going to take a lot of work and we are going to work hard," Pryor said. "I am on the Appropriations Committee and have good relations on both sides. And, I was very unimpressed with the Air Force’s rationale for this."
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who is leaving office at the end of the year, said the delegation worked very hard on the effort but fell short.
"That is not the end of this battle. I think there are other things that can be done to get the Air Force’s attention and hopefully get them to rethink this," Ross said. "One thing I’ve learned after 12 years in Congress is that what appears one day may very well not be so the next day."
Rep.-elect Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, said he is "troubled by the somewhat arbitrary criteria" the Air Force used in removing the A-10 mission from the 188th and plans to work with the delegation to continue to fight for Fort Smith.
"It is something that all of us will work together on," he said.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, said that he would take his signals from Pryor, Boozman and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, as the delegation looks for ways to retain the A-10 mission for Fort Smith.
"It really is a travesty when you think about the cost efficiency and effectiveness of that unit. It just makes no sense at all," he said. "Obviously our delegation is all in on this."
The 188th Fighter Wing, based in Fort Smith, has almost 1,000 full- and part-time employees; its history traces to Oct. 15, 1953, when the 184th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was organized and federally recognized in Fort Smith.