State Journal-Register

September 16, 2003

Fitzgerald opposes Air Force lease plan


WASHINGTON - Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., on Monday formally opposed the Air Force's proposed $21 billion lease of 100 refueling tankers from Chicago-based Boeing, saying it would be cheaper for the federal government to purchase the planes outright.

The stance puts him at odds once more with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who was instrumental in working out the deal for the home-state firm.

Fitzgerald strongly criticized the lease arrangement at a hearing earlier this month.

"It's just a complex legal construct to evade the (Department of Defense) procurement requirements," he said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

He later met with Air Force officials and reviewed the financial plan for the lease before registering his opposition more formally Monday in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va.

"If the Armed Services Committee authorizes the Air Force to acquire the tankers, I recommend that the committee authorize the purchase, rather than lease, of the aircraft," Fitzgerald wrote. "This approach appears to be in the best interest of the taxpayers, while supporting the Air Force mission."

A Congressional Budget Office report said the lease could cost $5.7 billion more than if the government purchased the tankers.

Air Force Secretary James Roche has told lawmakers that it would be faster to obtain delivery of the tankers under the lease arrangement compared to the complicated and time-consuming federal procurement procedures. The purchase of the tankers would require the Air Force to put up $8 billion, which it doesn't have readily available.

Three other congressional committees already have endorsed the 100-plane lease proposal. However, the controversy that erupted this month caused Warner to propose a compromise. He has asked the Pentagon to study the lease of 25 tanker aircraft followed by the purchase of 75.

Fitzgerald believes that's a step in the right direction, an aide said.

One Air Force official, quoted in the trade publication Defense News, said leasing only 25 would increase the cost of each tanker.

Hastert also believes that Warner's proposal would be more costly and wouldn't resolve the funding issue, Hastert spokesman John Feehery said.

"The reason we did this is to get as many tankers up and running as soon as possible. We need the 100 planes," Feehery said.

Hastert played a critical role in getting the White House to sign off on the lease arrangement. Replacing the 40-year-old tankers currently in use as quickly as possible is a matter of national security and also is good for Illinois, Feehery said.

Although Boeing's headquarters is in Chicago, most of the work on the Boeing 767 aircraft is done in other states.

Hastert has taken an unusually aggressive role in pushing for the lease arrangement that would benefit the Illinois firm, said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"The speaker is just trying to show one company that has invested in his state that he can deliver now that they've moved there," said Ashdown, a vocal critic of the Boeing deal.

Hastert and Fitzgerald have sparred in the past over funding for the Lincoln presidential library in Springfield and the selection of U.S. attorneys.

Illinois' other senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, supported the lease arrangement initially, an aide said.

"In fairness to American servicemen whose lives hang in the balance and American workers who desperately need jobs, I think we should wait for all the facts before condemning" the 25-plane proposal, Durbin said in a statement.

A Boeing representative had no comment on Fitzgerald's opposition, but pledged to "to continue to work with the Air Force, the administration and the Congress to find the best solution to fulfill this crucial requirement."