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Seafaring Congressman visits Whidbey

A committed Navy man in the seafaring sense got a look at the Navy's aerial abilities during a tour of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Monday.

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Mississippi, a Coast Guard veteran, was duly impressed after being show around by Rep. Rick Larsen and Navy officials.

"It's a beautiful installation," Taylor said in an interview following the tour. "Even the Mississippi sailors seem happy to be stationed there."

Larsen was showing his powerful colleague around, hoping it pays off in terms of jobs and money for the Second Congressional District. As chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Taylor has a lot to say about how defense dollars are spent.

"I wanted him to see that the Navy is more than San Diego," Larsen said.

Taylor's short stay in Washington included a tour of Naval Station Everett and discussions with Puget Sound area shipbuilders.

Taylor and Larsen concur that the Navy is short of ships. The two Democrats criticized President George W. Bush for comparative inattention to the nation's water-based service. "He's been particularly bad to the Navy," Taylor said. "The fleet is smaller than we want."

The Navy's surface fleet presently is comprised of 289 ships, way down from nearly 600 during the Reagan Administration. Taylor and Larsen would like to see it built up to 300 ships, a level that could be maintained indefinitely with ten new ships built each year, and ten old ones retiring.

That level would allow the nation to maintain its ship-building infrastructure.

Taylor joined Larsen's criticism of the Air Force decision to hire Airbus, a European firm, to build a new fleet of aerial tankers. "We don't want that to happen with boats," he said.

Larsen is hoping that Boeing's appeal of the Air Force decision will bear fruit and keep the tanker construction jobs in the Everett area, where the 767 airframe is built. But he was unwilling to predict how the General Accounting Office will decide on the appeal. He said a decision will be made within 100 days.

"Boeing has a legitimate challenge," Larsen said. One major issue is the subsidies European governments give to Airbus.

Neither representative had any complaints regarding how the Navy is treating NAS Whidbey, which is busy preparing for follow-on planes to the EA-6B Prowler and P-3 Orion. The imminent arrival of the new Growler, followed in a few years by the new Poseidon, seem to assure the base's long-term future, and construction in preparation for the new planes is boosting the local economy.

Larsen is working his way up on the Armed Services Subcommittee and he's a member of Taylor's subcommittee.

"He's more than halfway up the pecking order on the Armed Services Committee," Taylor said of Larsen. Taylor is in his 19th year in Congress.

To continue his climb up the pecking order, Larsen will have to win election to a fifth term in November. As of Monday he had no announced challenger, but former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart was seriously considering mounting a Republican challenge.

Bart will be in Oak Harbor March 22 to speak during the Island County Republican Convention. Kathy Jones, chairwoman of the county party, described Bart as "candidate for the Second Congressional District Seat" in a news release issued Tuesday morning.

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