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Originally published February 22, 2010 at 4:55 PM | Page modified February 23, 2010 at 8:57 AM

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Gregoire, 8 other governors back Boeing for tanker bid

The highly politicized wrangling over the $35 billion Air Force tanker deal reached a new pitch Monday when the governors of Washington and eight other states joined to demand that the Pentagon award the contract to Boeing.

Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The highly politicized wrangling over the $35 billion Air Force tanker deal reached a new pitch Monday when the governors of Washington and eight other states joined to demand the Pentagon award the contract to Boeing.

Appearing at the National Press Club, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a new coalition called "U.S. Tanker 2010," a designation aimed at differentiating Boeing from its rival, a partnership between Northrop Grumman and EADS, parent company of the European consortium Airbus.

Gregoire is the chairwoman of the coalition, also made up of governors of Oregon, Illinois, Missouri and five other states where Boeing or its suppliers would employ workers on the tanker program.

Flanked by Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson, Gregoire touted Boeing as a better choice for national security, value for taxpayers and the military's needs. Most of all, Gregoire and Parkinson depicted the tanker deal as a form of federal stimulus.

"The last time my state needed jobs this badly, Boeing was building the propeller-driven 247" airliner (in the 1930s), Gregoire said. "It's time for that tanker to be built in America."

For months, Northrop executives have threatened to walk away from the competition, alleging the Pentagon's contract guidelines are tilted in favor of Boeing.

The Northrop-EADS refueling tankers, based on the Airbus 330, would be assembled in Mobile, Ala., from components built in Europe.

Boeing is expected to pitch tankers based on the smaller Everett-built 767 for the first, 179-plane phase of the program to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of refueling aircraft.

Shelby stalls

The pressure from statehouses comes just two weeks after Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., set off a congressional furor by blocking all of President Obama's federal nominees in an attempt to steer the contract to his state.

The ensuing publicity forced Shelby to lift most of the "holds" a few days later.

Gregoire, asked about Shelby's holds on some 70 Obama appointees, called it "completely inappropriate." But she defended governors going to bat for Boeing, saying the company can build better tankers more quickly and cheaply than its rival.

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Boeing previously won, then lost, the convoluted competition to replace the aging Boeing KC-135 tankers. The Pentagon awarded it the contract in 2001, only to scrap the deal after revelations of collusion between former Air Force procurement officer Darleen Druyun and Boeing Chief Financial Officer Mike Sears. Both Sears and Druyun served prison time.

The Pentagon then gave the contract to Northrop-EADS (European Aeronautic Defence & Space) in February 2008, but the award was voided after government auditors determined serious flaws in the procurement assessments penalized Boeing.

Subjectivity curtailed

This time around, the Pentagon has rewritten the competition to almost "take all the subjectivity out of it," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

The Pentagon is expected this week to release its final "request for proposal" (RFP) outlining how the winning tanker will be chosen. Northrop, which already has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue the tanker contract, may be preparing to cut its losses.

Randy Belote, a Northrop spokesman, said the Pentagon's initial RFP seemed to favor a "smaller, less capable tanker," something Northrop hopes to see altered in the final guidelines, expected this week.

Unless changes are made in the RFP, said Belote, "Northrop Grumman will not submit a bid."

If that happens, Boeing may well end up being the Pentagon's sole tanker provider, said George Behan, chief of staff for Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who is expected to become chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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