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Government, Politics & Issues

Blunt promises heightened focus on defense spending, and protecting related Missouri jobs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2013 - When it comes to military spending, many Missourians may not realize how important it is to the state’s economy – and to their pocketbook.

And they need to know it.

That, in effect, was the prime message of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who stopped by Boeing on Friday to privately meet with workers and executives to underscore that he has their back. Especially now that Blunt is joining U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Missouri now is among the few states to have both senators on that powerful panel. And Blunt says the reasons are obvious. About 200,000 Missouri jobs are tied to the defense industry or the military, he said.

Close to 15,000 work at Boeing’s operations in the St. Louis area, most of them at the defense-fighter plane manufacturing facilities just north of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

“This is big component of what we do in our state,’’ he said. “Very few states exceed in the commitment to defense work and defending the country.”

That said, Blunt emphasized that he would support some defense cuts as part of any overall trimming in federal spending. “I do think it is time to really look carefully at the cost impact, the effectiveness of the defense dollars we spend,” he said. “I’m certainly not of the group that says that defense has to be off the table.”

Blunt emphasized, however, that he would oppose across-the-board cuts – in any part of the federal budget – and prefers making choices “between the kinds of things that make the most sense for us, and the things that don’t.”

“At the same time, I’m going to be advocating for Missouri workers and Missouri locations and locations near us, like Scott Air Force Base’’ in nearby Illinois.

Blunt toured some parts of the Boeing plant, spokesmen said. The senator said he observed and heard about efficiencies that have been made.

Blunt said he doubted whether Boeing would know what part of its operations might be affected by any across-the-board cuts mandated by “sequestration” – the process set up by Congress in 2011 if there are not agreements on specific cuts or revenue increases by early 2013.  Decisions to avoid the automatic cuts need to be made by the end of March, with the expiration of the exisiting congressional “continuing resolution’’ that funds federal operations.

Blunt did not discuss the call by some House Republicans, including Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, for a possible government shutdown if President Barack Obama declines to agree to certain spending cuts during the talks over a new continuing resolution, or for raising the federal debt ceiling.

Blunt said it’s important that Boeing, and other defense contractors, continue to produce the state-of-the-art weapons systems and aircraft that the nation needs to defend itself.

“What we see actually happening around the world now is we use these in Libya and other places, and use them effectively,” the senator said. “Our allies begin to think ‘we need to have this too’ because these weapons systems really make a big difference in how you can help create a world where you have a more likelihood of peace and democracy.”

“This is just a particularly critical moment,” Blunt continued, noting that Boeing’s operations in St. Louis have declined dramatically from the mid-1990s.

“You’ve got to talk about how we get spending under control,” he said. “Defense needs to be part of that, but it needs to be part of that in a way that really does allow us to continue to do what almost every Missourian would put at the top of their priority list. What is the job of the federal government that no other level of government can do, and that we can’t do ourselves. And that’s defend the country.”

As an example of smart spending, the senator said.  “The F/A-18 has proven to be an important part of our defense for a long time.” He was referring to Boeing’s marquee military plane, built in St. Louis.  

“The world is a safer place with the United States…having the capacity to do the kinds of things we’ve done for a generation,” Blunt said. “Nobody else is going to step in and fill that role, if we don’t. Our friends know that, our enemies know that. And we should know that.”

On other matters:

  • Blunt is withholding judgment on Obama’s choice of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the new defense secretary, which must be confirmed by the Senate. Blunt said he liked the idea of a defense secretary who had such a strong military record.

But Blunt emphasized that he had some concerns about some of Hagel’s past comments about Israel, which have come under fire from those who believe he is not supportive enough, and Hagel’s apparent coolness to unilateral sanctions against Iran, which Blunt supports.

  • Blunt praised the apparent softening of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial ban on any additional U.S. adoptions of Russian children.  Some adoptions already underway will apparently be allowed to be completed, Blunt said.

Blunt noted the issue is important to him personally because he and his wife, Abigail, have adopted a son from Russia. The senator criticized what he called Putin’s decision “to use these Russian kids…as some kind of political pawn’’ because of unrelated disputes with the United States.

  • Blunt reaffirmed his earlier comments in the wake of the December mass killings at a grade school in Connecticut, in which he said the focus should be on the mental state of the shooter, not the weapon.  Blunt called for “a more substantive federal role on mental health,’’ and blamed the federal government for some of the actions that have led to mentally ill people roaming the streets, instead of being housed in facilities where they can obtain treatement.

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