WASHINGTON — As Sen. Patty Murray introduced an amendment Tuesday that would require the Pentagon to consider illegal subsidies received by a European plane manufacturer when it awards an Air Force tanker contract, her Republican opponent scrambled to clarify his position on the issue.
A day after he seemed to indicate that the subsidies received by Airbus from the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Spain shouldn't be a factor in awarding the $35 billion contract for the aerial refueling tankers, Republican Senate candidate Dino Rossi said Tuesday that they clearly should be.
"I absolutely believe the illegal subsidies received by Airbus should be taken into account when the Air Force makes its decision on the tanker contract," Rossi said in an e-mailed statement from his campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Morris.
But Democrats, including Murray, continued to pounce.
"You cannot not know this issue and represent the workers of Washington state," Murray said in a phone interview. She added that Rossi's earlier remarks were "deeply troubling to me."
Murray's campaign staff said Tuesday that Rossi's campaign had received a total of $10,000 in contributions from the Defend America Political Action Committee, the leadership PAC of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Shelby is one of the leading supporters in the Senate of the tanker bid by Airbus parent company, EADS. Federal Election Commission reports confirm the contributions from Shelby's PAC.
Rossi's campaign had no immediate comment on the Shelby contributions.
Murray's amendment to the annual defense authorization bill would force the Pentagon to consider whether the EADS tanker bid had an "unfair competitive advantage" because Airbus has received roughly $20 billion in illegal government subsidies over the years. The World Trade Organization, in what could be the largest trade dispute in history, ruled this summer that the subsidies violated international agreements.
The Defense Department has, so far, refused to take the subsidies into account as it considers the tanker bids.
The European tanker would be based on an Airbus A330 airframe, initially built in France and later in Mobile, Ala. Boeing's bid is based on 767 airframes that would be built in Everett, Wash., and modified for use as tankers at the company's plant in Wichita, Kan.
At stake could be up to 9,000 jobs in Washington state.
Just hours after Murray took to the floor to offer her amendment, Republicans blocked an effort to cut off debate on the overall bill and bring it to a vote. Among other things, the bill includes a provision that would eventually repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays serving in the military. The fate of the bill remained uncertain late Tuesday.
In a floor speech, Murray said the Europeans use their aerospace program as a "government-funded jobs program" and provided billions of dollars in so-called launch aid to fund it.
"Airbus has made clear that they will go to any lengths to hurt our country's aerospace industry," said Murray, who has been talking about the illegal subsidies for years. "We need to make clear we will take every action to stop them."
The senator dismissed a WTO finding earlier this month that Boeing itself may have received roughly $3 billion in illegal subsidies through infrastructure improvements and government-funded defense and space research projects.
Murray said Airbus and its allies were using the issue of Boeing subsidies as a "smokescreen" to "distract and hide" their own larger subsidies.
Murray and Rossi appeared together Monday before The (Tacoma) News Tribune's editorial board and were asked about the subsidies and the tanker contract.
Murray said the Airbus subsidies should be a factor in awarding the tanker contract.
Asked if he also felt the WTO findings should be a consideration in the tanker contract, Rossi responded, "No, not as far as I am concerned, no."
Morris, Rossi's spokesman, later said Rossi wasn't talking about the subsidies that Airbus had received, but the ones the WTO said Boeing had received.
Murray said Tuesday that the Rossi campaign was just trying to cover up a mistake by its candidate.
"It was clear to me and everyone else what the question was," Murray said. "He either didn't understand or didn't care."
In his statement Tuesday, Rossi said, "We don't need a WTO ruling to know that Boeing makes the best planes at the best price and, absent unfair foreign subsidies, would win the tanker contract hands down."
Despite requests for an interview, Rossi was unavailable.
Rossi may have inadvertently made the tanker subsidy issue into a major campaign flap.
Murray's campaign said Rossi would be in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and Thursday for a series of campaign fundraisers, including one featuring Washington Republican Reps. Dave Reichert, Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. All three supported an amendment's similar to Murray's that was adopted by the House in its version of the defense authorization bill.
And Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, who watched an Internet video of The News Tribune's editorial board meeting with the two candidates, said he was "stunned" by Rossi's initial comments.
"On one of the biggest issues involving the fate of thousands of Boeing jobs in our state, Mr. Rossi appeared to be wholly unprepared," Dicks said.