WASHINGTON — Alaska's Republican senators won't support proposed major budget cuts for the U.S. Coast Guard, they told the White House Office of Management and Budget in a letter following reports of major cuts in President Donald Trump's draft budget.
Several national outlets have reported on a draft White House budget request to Congress that includes $1.3 billion cut from the Coast Guard's $9.1 billion budget. The Coast Guard cut is reportedly aimed at helping pay for a wall on the southern border shared with Mexico.
Alaska Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker were the only three Republicans among 23 senators to sign the letter. The rest were Democrats.
Cutting into the Coast Guard budget could mean a far lower chance of bolstering the dwindling U.S. fleet of icebreakers, at a time when shipping traffic is increasing in the Arctic. Senators warned this is not the time to "kick the can down the road" on the Coast Guard's aging fleet.
"We strongly urge you to refrain from any such cuts. The Coast Guard budget has suffered a steady decline since 2010, which resulted in negative impacts to Coast Guard missions, infrastructure, delays in necessary recapitalization efforts, and has generally constrained Coast Guard operations," the senators wrote in a letter to OMB Director John Mulvaney.
Sullivan's office was involved in crafting the letter, which was ultimately released by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington.
The budget proposal, not yet public, would reportedly also cut the budgets of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides disaster relief, and the Transportation Security Administration by about 11 percent each. Reports indicate the intent is to shift funds to the Department of Homeland Security, boosting its budget to $43.8 billion.
The White House is expected to release its budget request next week. The White House press office did not respond to questions about the proposed Coast Guard budget.
"We are concerned that the Coast Guard would not be able to maintain maritime presence, respond to individual and national emergencies, and protect our nation's economic and environmental interests" if the budget cuts go forward, the letter said.
In Alaska, the Coast Guard handles thousands of search-and-rescue and navigational aid operations each year. The branch is also working to secure Arctic waters in Operation Arctic Shield.
Nationwide, the military branch is heavily involved in capturing illegal drugs. The letter notes that in 2016, the Coast Guard captured 416,000 pounds of illegal international drugs bound for the U.S.
Alaska's lawmakers may have hoped to see a boost in the Coast Guard budget under Trump, who has expressed a strong interest in shipbuilding. "Between 2010 and 2015, the acquisition budget decreased by 40 percent," and it was restored in 2016, the letter said.
But the "acquisition budget continues to constrain needed investments for priority platforms such as polar icebreakers, national security cutters, offshore patrol cutters, fast response cutters, and Great Lakes icebreakers."
The letter pointed to an upcoming "potential eight-year gap in heavy icebreaking capability between when the Polar Star retires and when a new heavy icebreaker will be commissioned."
"It is irresponsible to continue to kick the can down the road, denying the Coast Guard the assets needed to meet mission requirements in the polar regions," the letter said. With Arctic sea ice decreasing, passenger routes are opening up in the Arctic.
The letter pointed to Russia's current fleet of 41 icebreakers and ongoing construction of 11 more.
Sullivan and Murkowski raised the issue of the diminishing fleet of U.S. icebreakers during their meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, they said.