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Defense-heavy Alabama delegation aims to maintain influence as Shelby departs

BY: CONNOR O’BRIEN, LEE HUDSON | 11/29/2022 05:00 AM EST

Alabama is losing decades of clout on Capitol Hill when Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Senate Republican appropriator and a booster of the state’s defense sector, retires in January.

But behind the scenes, the state’s congressional delegation is making moves to shore up its standing and ability to advocate for its defense interests next year.

Republican Katie Britt, a one-time top Shelby aide who was elected in the midterms to succeed him, is seeking a spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to three people with knowledge of the situation, a move that her former boss supports.

In the House, Republican Rep. Jerry Carl is making a bid to jump from the Armed Services Committee to the Appropriations Committee, the lawmaker’s office confirmed.

“Alabama has a strong legacy of appropriators, and Jerry knows he can best fight for the needs of his congressional district and the state of Alabama by serving in that role,” said Zach Weidlich, a spokesperson for Carl.

Both moves are far from a done deal, as coveted spots on the panels that control federal spending need the signoff of the GOP ranks in both chambers. But the assignments would buttress an almost entirely Republican delegation in a state with a major military and defense industry presence — including shipbuilding and a burgeoning aerospace sector — that is about to lose its biggest benefactor in Shelby.

The potential shifts also come as Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, now the top House Armed Services Republican, prepares to take the gavel of the influential defense panel.

Carl, whose district spans most of the state’s Gulf Coast, has Rogers’ blessing to make a play for appropriations as Republican leadership reshuffles committee assignments.

Shelby has bent the federal spending process to his will to deliver funding for military assets in his home state in six terms in the Senate — often facing criticism that the money he secured didn’t reflect the actual needs of the military. His three-and-a-half-decade tenure is capped off by a stint as the chair and ranking Republican on both the Appropriations Committee and its Defense subpanel, giving him tremendous sway over the Pentagon budget.

Shelby was a booster of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and Expeditionary Fast Transport ship programs, both built by Austal USA at its Mobile shipyard. He’s also supported increasing money for missile procurement, while shoring up rocket and missile manufacturing in Alabama.

He’s also supportive of moving the new U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville and secured money to expand the FBI’s campus at Redstone Arsenal as top officials continue to mull the site of the bureau’s new headquarters in the capital region.

Britt, a Shelby protege, has indicated an interest in Appropriations, though hasn’t publicly declared she’s seeking the seat.

Asked about Britt’s plans, a spokesperson for her campaign pointed to an interview with Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal” just before the general election. Though she did not state that she is seeking to succeed Shelby on the Appropriations Committee, Britt emphasized the need for the state to be represented on the Appropriations, Armed Services and Agriculture committees between her and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who already sits on the latter two panels.

“One of the things I think is important is that we approach it like a team,” Britt said. “So Coach Tuberville and myself looking at where Alabama’s needs [are] and how do we make sure that Alabama is covered.

“It doesn’t matter to me which one of us is on which one of those, but [I] want to make sure Alabama has a seat at the table on every single one of them,” she added.

In the same interview, Britt expressed interest in the Commerce, Banking and Intelligence committees.

In addition to Shelby, Tuberville is backing Britt for the Appropriations Committee while keeping his Armed Services spot. A spokesperson for Tuberville said the first-term senator “is supportive” of Britt becoming an appropriator if she seeks it, and said the pair will work together “to make sure Alabama’s interests are covered” through their committee assignments.

Britt, a former chief of staff to Shelby, is an advocate for the state’s defense industry. She served as president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama from 2018 to 2021 before announcing her candidacy.

Whether her bid is successful is ultimately the call of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Two senior GOP appropriators, Shelby and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, are retiring, but a Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia could also affect the Senate’s committee calculus. Like the full Senate, committees are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats winning a majority would change the ratios and could mean fewer openings on top committees.

On the other side of the Capitol, Carl is primed to jump from House Armed Services to Appropriations. Rogers told POLITICO he gave the move his blessing, just as Shelby is pushing for Britt to succeed him on Senate Appropriations.

If approved by the House GOP Steering Committee, Carl would be Alabama’s second appropriator. Rep. Robert Aderholt, who represents a swath of northern Alabama, is the third most senior GOP appropriator, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee and sits on the Defense Appropriations panel.

Alabama has had just one appropriator in the House since Rep. Martha Roby retired in 2021. Lawmakers from Carl’s Mobile-based district have historically held a seat on the Appropriations Committee for decades, including former GOP Reps. Jo Bonner, Sonny Callahan and Jack Edwards.

Armed Services, meanwhile, will lose two Alabama Republicans in Carl and Mo Brooks, who is leaving the House after losing the GOP Senate primary to Britt in June.

The delegation, however, is likely to keep one of those seats. Incoming freshman Dale Strong, who was elected to succeed Brooks in the district that includes the aerospace-heavy Huntsville area, is expected to join Armed Services.

Defense industry heavyweights such as Airbus, Austal USA, Boeing, Dynetics, GE Aviation, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies, and the United Launch Alliance have facilities in Alabama.

The state also has a significant federal aerospace and military presence. Fort Rucker serves as the training center for Army helicopter pilots. Redstone Arsenal is a major research, engineering, and test center for the service’s aviation and missile defense programs. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is also in Huntsville.

The delegation is also focused on bringing Air Force tanker work to the state. Alabama lawmakers, led by Carl and Rogers, are pushing the service to hold a competition for a new refueling aircraft to close a gap as the Air Force retires its KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. Mobile-based Airbus has said that if the Air Force holds a competition for the project, the firm will submit the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport with Lockheed Martin.

Shipbuilding is a key piece of Alabama’s defense industry economy. Austal USA, a spinoff of Australia-based Austal, builds aluminum hull ships and has benefited from Shelby’s influence. Over the past four years, the Navy received funding for five Austal-built expeditionary fast transport ships it didn’t ask for.

The new U.S. Space Command headquarters will likely move to Alabama from its current location in Colorado. The Trump administration selected Redstone Arsenal as its permanent home in January 2021.

Alabama lawmakers have defended the decision as merited, but Colorado lawmakers have pushed back on the basing decision. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is expected to make a decision soon.

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