MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Sen. Doug Jones and Rep. Bradley Byrne are from different parties and may appear opposite one another on the ballot this fall, but both men stand united against plans to use money earmarked for Austal USA for a border wall.
President Donald Trump’s administration has indicated it plans to reprogram $3.8 billion in defense funds to build 177 miles of roads, fencing and lighting as part of a strategy to block 13 drug-smuggling corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Included in those funds is some $261 million slated for the Austal shipyard in Mobile to build an Expeditionary Fast Transport ship.
Trump’s move comes a year after he reprogrammed money budgeted for military construction projects to help build the wall, his signature 2016 campaign promise.
Jones (D-Mountain Brook) blasted the latest proposal.
“I was opposed to him moving defense monies last year when it just involved construction projects,” he said. “Now we’re talking about money that is going to affect hardware – ships, planes, drones – affect our men and women in uniform, as well as our national security.”
Byrne (R-Fairhope), who will square off against Jones if he wins the Republican primary for the Senate next month, said he has been in contact with the White House. He said moving the money away from Austal could have dire consequences.
“It could cause layoffs at Austal, which is why we’re working so hard on it,” he said. “And Austal’s working hard on it. And that’s why I think it probably won’t happen, because I don’t think the White House wants to cost anybody their job.”
Craig Perciavalle, president of Austal USA, suggested the company could ride out a delay in funding. The firm has a “strong backlog and a lot to do over the next few years,” he said in a statement.
“So as always, we'll continue to focus on what we can control, delivering great ships to our great navy on cost and schedule,” he added. “That approach has served us very well in the past and I know will serve us well in the future.”
Austal, Mobile’s largest industrial employer, is heavily dependent on military contracts. Its best-known project, the littoral combat ship, came under renewed doubt this week when the Department of the Navy released a budget calling for the first four of those LCS ships to be decommissioned. Austal built two of them.
The ship in question as part of Trump’s border plan – the Expeditionary Fast Transport, or EPF –is a fast-moving catamaran designed to transfer military cargo and personnel. Austal won the contract in 2008 and has delivered 11 ships so far with plans to build three more.
Jones said it is premature to determine how the move might impact employment at Austal and to know how the company could adjust. But he added, “It’s a $261 million contract that as of right now is not going to be coming to Mobile.”
Jones suggested Congress add language to the next defense spending bill to limit the president’s ability to move funds.
“Members of Congress, at least members of the Senate, are gonna be pretty upset with us because this doesn’t just affect this one ship,” he said. “We’re talking about planes. We’re talking about drones. We’re talking about a number of states that will be affected by this movement of military hardware and putting it on the back burner.”
Byrne said he believes the president already is legally prevented from moving the Austal funds. He said it is fundamentally different than moving funds from various construction projects to the wall.
“This isn’t a construction project,” he said. “This is a weapons acquisition project. And it’s in the fleet. We’re trying to get to 355 ships. Well, if you start taking ships out of the count, we’ll never get to 355.”
Jones and Byrne also agree on the value of the LCS. They both said the ships are useful and that the Pentagon should continue to build them despite questions about their survivability in combat.
But Jones and Byrne disagree over the underlying policy Trump is trying to achieve with the funds transfer – the wall.
“The president needs money to build a wall,” Byrne said. “And the best way to do that is to put it into the homeland security budget, not the Department of Defense budget.”
Jones said the justification for a wall to stop illegal immigration has diminished since border apprehensions have declined in recent months – a fact Trump touted in his State of the Union address. And walls are not a good way to fight drugs, he said.
“There’s so many more ways that you can stop that, without a wall,” he said. “The wall has become a political issue for the president. There’s a number of ways – with drones, more technology – a number of ways that you can do this.”
Story updated at 12:40 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2020, to include comments from Austal.