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Virginia Congressional Delegation Wants to Protect Contract Workers, Split on Best Strategy

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Before the global pandemic shut down the economy, President Trump had proposed ship and submarine cuts that were almost universally opposed by Virginia lawmakers. The delegation is now fighting to help the state's contracting industry while debating how best to do it.

The president’s budget proposes cutting ship building by four billion dollars, including canceling the plan to build another high tech, Virginia-class submarine which is constructed in Connecticut and by thousands of workers in Hampton Roads. Some lawmakers want to fund the sub and other ships in the next coronavirus stimulus bill, but Eastern Virginia Republican Rob Wittman opposes the idea.

“I think we need to be laser focused on getting the COVID-19 impact addressed,” Wittman says.

Wittman is one of the loudest advocates for the Commonwealth’s military contractors. He’s the top Republican on the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and he’s a Co-Chair of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus. Wittman says dropping from two to one submarine next year would cost more money in the end because they’re such complex machines.

“When you drop down to that level of production you lose the economies of what you get to be able to produce submarines at a less expensive per unit cost,” he explains.

That’s why Wittman thinks proponents don’t need to include the subs and other ships that the Navy wants to cut in the next stimulus bill. He says he’s optimistic lawmakers will win that funding battle with the White House later this summer, and that coronavirus needs to be the top of their agenda right now.

“We've had very good success in our conversations with folks to make that case," Wittman says. "And I think that we can do that but I think it needs to be made separate from the debate on COVID-19.”

Democrats are trying to get President Trump and Senate Republicans to go along with a new stimulus bill aimed at infrastructure as a way to spur economic growth, which is why some argue including naval vessels makes sense. But not to Central Virginia Republican Denver Riggleman who agrees with Wittman.

“I just don't know if that matters right now. And it's not being flippant about it. I just think we have other things on the plate," says Riggleman. "And I think we need to say businesses first, then we can go back and do a hot wash, and all the things that led to this.”

In February the administration also announced it was shifting $3.8 billion from weapons programs to fund the president’s border wall. Another Central Virginia Representative -- Democrat Abigail Spanberger -- opposed that move before the pandemic, but now says it makes even less sense than before.  

“Across the board to take money away from projects that had been funded is I don't think appropriate or in our national security interest and recognizing it even in the current framework, you know, it has significant negative impact on our local Virginia economy,” she explains.

With more than 24,000 people normally on their payroll, Newport News Shipbuilding is the largest private employer in the Hampton Roads region. It’s unclear how many of those jobs are at risk if the president’s proposed cuts go through, but Hampton Roads Democrat Bobby Scott says it would hurt the local economy.

“Well obviously the cancellation of contracts for submarines would have an adverse effect in Newport News,” Scott says.

The entire Virginia congressional delegation came together to write a letter to the Navy trying to ensure the commonwealth’s contracting industry is able to quickly get loans under the stimulus program. Scott says there’s also bipartisan support for the commonwealth’s Navy contracts, so he thinks once Congress gets back to work those contracts will be okay – though even then, it’s not written in stone.

Scott explains, “there’s bipartisan support, so that’s what we expect. You can never tell."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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