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Defense spending bill is heavy with Arctic and Alaska interests

WASHINGTON — A defense spending bill moving through the U.S. Senate is heavy on Arctic priorities and Alaska-focused military spending.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously moved the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills for Defense and Homeland Security through the full committee Thursday, giving the funding a bipartisan boost as lawmakers aim to fund the government committee by committee.

The $574.5 billion defense spending bill is expected to move to the Senate floor for a vote in June.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Thursday pushed a message often repeated by all three members of the state's congressional delegation — that Alaska's strategic location and Arctic concerns make it an ideal place to send the nation's military dollars.

"The Coast Guard has been in significant need of basically recapitalizing their fleet. It is an essential part of our homeland security," Murkowski, a Republican, said at Thursday's hearing. "Making sure that we are doing right by our Coast Guard and providing them the assets that they need is something that we have great responsibility for, and I appreciate the commitment that has been made from this committee."

Earmarks are a thing of the past and directing funds to a lawmaker's home state is less direct in today's Congress.

For instance, in the appropriations bill passed out of committee Thursday, Murkowski secured language directing the Coast Guard to consider basing a national security cutter near the Arctic. The bill also directs the Coast Guard to station two offshore patrol cutters in Kodiak and appropriated $325 million for fast-response cutters, two of which are scheduled to be stationed in Ketchikan in 2017.

During Thursday's hearing, Murkowski said it is imperative to get a national security cutter "as close to the Arctic as we can get." The closest home port for one now is in Alameda, California, 2,200 miles from Kodiak. From there, the Coast Guard would have to travel another 2,150 miles to Point Barrow.

Murkowski noted that this summer the cruise ship Crystal Serenity will sail through Arctic waters to New York — "just the beginning" for routes opened by a shrinking ice cap.

The Homeland Security secretary has also been directed to report back on Coast Guard plans to ensure search-and-rescue capabilities in the Arctic.

The Coast Guard funds are just the start of appropriations focused on Alaska. The bill, if it gets President Barack Obama's signature, would spend an additional $100 million over Obama's request to begin acquiring new F-35A aircraft that are bound for Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.

The bill allocates $162 million for research and development for radar equipment bound for Clear Air Force Station in Interior Alaska, on top of $155 million for construction approved in another appropriations bill.

The bill also includes $1 billion to fund a new Arctic icebreaker, long a priority of Murkowski, who sits on the subcommittee.

However, "I tell colleagues, one icebreaker does not make a fleet, and that's where we're sitting at right now," Murkowski said Wednesday, noting that the heavy-duty Polar Star icebreaker has an Antarctica-focused research mission.

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