WASHINGTON — Two congressmen asked President Bush on Friday to resist pressure from three European leaders and ensure that the Pentagon will be evenhanded as it prepares to reopen the competition for a $35 billion Air Force aerial-refueling tanker contract.
"We hope you will reject all outside pressure and ensure a completely fair process," Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., said in a letter to Bush.
Dicks and Tiahrt said it would be "unconscionable" if the Pentagon awarded the contract to a team composed of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. rather than Boeing. EADS is the parent company of Airbus, a fierce rival of Boeing for dominance of the commercial airplane market.
The letter came two days after McClatchy reported that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had personally lobbied Bush on the tanker contract, urging him to support the Northrop-EADS bid.
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In confirming that the three had raised the issue with Bush at "various times," a White House spokesman said Bush told them it was a Pentagon matter, not a White House one. Neither the president nor anyone on his staff has discussed the tanker contract with Air Force or Defense Department officials, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
The original tanker contract was awarded to Northrop-EADS in February. After congressional auditors upheld a Boeing protest, the Pentagon decided to reopen the competition. Dicks, Tiahrt and other Boeing supporters have alleged that the Defense Department is designing the new competition in a way that again will favor Northrop-EADS.
Tiahrt said he thought it was wrong for Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel to lobby Bush.
"Perhaps they should register as foreign lobbyists," Tiahrt said in a telephone interview. "They were obviously lobbying for Airbus. Congressman Dicks and I are lobbying for a fair competition."
Tiahrt, like Dicks, said he didn't have any evidence that Bush or the White House had pressured the Air Force or the Defense Department on the contract.
"The president has said it doesn't have anything to do with him, and I believe him," Tiahrt said. "But he does have people who are in contact with the Department of Defense."
The Northrop-EADS tanker would use Airbus A330 airframes, which currently are assembled in Toulouse, France, using French, German, British and Spanish parts. Northrop-EADS has said that the tanker eventually will be assembled in Mobile, Ala., but it hasn't broken ground for a plant.
The Boeing tanker would use a 767 airframe built in Everett, Wash., and modified into a tanker in Wichita, Kan.