Mar 08 2010

Preserving space jobs big focus for Shelby

By Jon Busdeker

Senator talks of opposition to Obama's NASA budget, health care overhaul

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby is concerned.

As NASA's Constellation space exploration program hangs in the balance, Shelby told The Times editorial board on Sunday afternoon he's concerned about private companies getting into the business of space. He's worried that China and India will "fill the vacuum" if U.S. manned space flight goes away.

But most of all, Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, is troubled about the loss of jobs if Constellation is killed.

"The jobs are important," Shelby said. "You lose the critical mass of scientists and engineers, it's hard to bring it back. ?We're going to do everything we can to retain this program."

This morning, Shelby will speak to the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

Shelby's visit to North Alabama comes on the heels of last week's meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who is trying to sell President Barack Obama's $19 billion NASA budget request on Capitol Hill. If approved, the budget request will kill the Constellation space exploration program introduced in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

Shelby has accused the Obama administration of beginning "the death march for NASA" and has told Bolden he is "out of step with Congress." Shelby described last Thursday's meeting with Bolden as "to the point."

"I believe some of us have fundamental disagreements on how the administration wants to go," Shelby said.

Shelby has vowed to fight the changes, he said.

"I don't call this a bump in the road. It's bigger than that," he said.

Shelby touched on a number of subjects during Sunday afternoon's conversation with The Times, including the pending health care bill, the Tea Party movement and the upcoming midterm elections, U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith's party switch, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Air Force refueling tanker dispute.

Here's what he had to say:

Health care

Shelby said he does not want to "fundamentally change" the "best health care system in the world." But he acknowledged that health care in America is "too expensive."

He said the Democrats' plan is a "big departure" from the current system.

"I have no confidence that this plan, if passed, will save money," Shelby said. "I don't want the government to turn it upside-down."

Instead, Shelby said he wants to improve the system by eliminating defensive medicine, tackling tort reform, address the pre-existing condition problem and setting up a national insurance exchange.

"The market will work if you let it," Shelby said.

Midterm elections

"The Democrats aren't interested in bipartisanship," Shelby said. "They're trying to push their programs."

If Democrats do pass a sweeping health care reform, Shelby said he expects them to "pay dearly at the polls" in November. He predicted the Republicans will gain several seats in the both the House and Senate.

"There will be a backlash," he said.

But Shelby made sure to point out that "it's a long time to November."

Tea Party

Shelby said there's plenty of room under his "big tent" for conservatives, ultra conservatives and moderates. He applauded the Tea Party movement because, as a group, they "crystallized the debate on health care."

But Shelby said third parties are "damaging."

Tanker dispute

The odds are against Northrop Grumman, said Shelby, who expects Boeing to win the $40 billion to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. Northrop won the original contract, but the deal unraveled when federal auditors found problems with the way the Air Force made its selection. The Air Force released a final bid package, or request for proposals, for the tanker contract last month.

"I'm very concerned the way they've redone the re-bidding process," Shelby said. "What they ought to do is have a fair bidding process. ?I think the Pentagon is very determined to give it to Boeing."

The Middle East

In Afghanistan, there's been plenty of success on the ground, Shelby said. Soon, he expects the Afghanistan government to train a standalone army, so they can "fight they're own battles."

"We have no intention on staying there," he said.

As for the rest of the Middle East, Shelby touched on the region's rising unemployment among its young Muslim men and women. Little work in the region will lead to a "recruiting ground" for extremist groups, he said.

Griffith's switch

Although he switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican in 1994, Shelby had little to say about Griffith, who made his own switch last December.

"He has to win his race on the battlefield," said Shelby, adding if Griffith is re-elected in November, there's a "very good chance" he may be placed on the House Appropriations Committee.

Huntsville's growth

"Huntsville will continue to grow," Shelby said. "You got a lot here."

Whether or not Constellation is killed, Shelby said he'll continue to push for an FBI explosives center to be built at Redstone Arsenal.