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Originally published Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Washington lawmakers cheer air tanker delay

Lawmakers from Washington state are cheering the Defense Department decision to delay an aerial refueling tanker contract until the next...

The Associated Press

Lawmakers from Washington state are cheering the Defense Department decision to delay an aerial refueling tanker contract until the next administration.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the decision is good news for Boeing, which had complained that it needed more time to bid on the massive contract for the Air Force. If Boeing wins the contract, it would mean years of work for its assembly plants in the Seattle area.

"It's absolutely the right decision to allow a $40 billion, 40-year contract to continue in a fair way," Murray said.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said he expects the next contract decision will be more fair than the process that previously gave the deal to Northrop Grumman and its partner, Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS).

The competition was reopened this summer after government auditors found "significant errors" in the Air Force's decision.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers today that he decided to cancel the current round of bidding on the plane — a competition that has stretched seven years — because the Pentagon's plan to award the contract by the end of the year no longer seemed practical. Gates cited the complexity of the project and the rancor between the two companies.

He said a delay would provide a "cooling off" period and allow a new administration to make a decision based on updated needs.

"A restart is better than a false start, and a false start is where the Air Force was headed," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "Hopefully, a new start will be a fair process to fully understand the requirements and give contractors the proper time to bid."

Cantwell said she will continue her hold on President Bush's nomination of Michael Donley to be Air Force secretary to ensure that the tanker competition is fair, open and transparent.

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., said signs have long been clear that the bidding process was flawed.

"With adequate time the Air Force can decide what exactly they are looking for, and can communicate that to Boeing, so they can get a fair shake in this contract with a full understanding of what's expected to build the next fleet of tankers. "

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said he looks forward to working with the new administration to ensure the tanker competition is done right, "and that getting our men and women the right tanker as soon as possible is a top priority."

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Larsen, who like other Washington Democrats supports Barack Obama for president, said the selection process would be fair under Obama. But he blamed Republican John McCain for forcing the Pentagon to consider the Northrop Grumman bid.

McCain was a leading critic of an earlier tanker deal that awarded the contract to Boeing, and he later pressed the Pentagon to change proposed bidding procedures opposed by Northrop and EADS

Boeing lost the initial tanker contract in 2004 amid an ethics scandal that resulted in prison terms for a former senior company official and a former high-ranking Air Force official.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, has boasted on the campaign trail about his role blocking the original tanker deal, but has said in recent months that his main concern is for a fair competition.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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