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Idaho senator holds up Air Force promotions

Dispute over cargo planes at issue

From Kate Snow, Steve Turnham and Trish Turner
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Larry Craig
Sen. Larry Craig

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, has put a hold on more than 200 Air Force promotions in an attempt to pressure the Air Force to live up to what he described as a commitment to station four new C-130 cargo planes in his home state.

In an interview Monday with CNN, Craig defended the move, saying that he received a commitment from the Air Force almost seven years ago that the planes would be delivered.

The hold was first reported in The Washington Post over the weekend. Craig's office said 212 nominations were on hold, but Pentagon officials said the number of nominations that could be affected by the move is higher.

"For 18 months I have been working with the Air Force to try to bring stability to an air guard mission in the state of Idaho, and during that 18-month period, long before Iraqi Freedom, they really refused to work with us," Craig said. "So some weeks ago I did place a hold. It was very public. It was certainly not a secret thing."

Defense officials also told CNN the reason the C-130s are not likely to be sent to Idaho is that they would have to "come from somewhere else" because no new aircraft are being manufactured for the type of transport mission done by that Idaho Air National Guard unit.

"It's a zero sum game; we would just have to take them from somewhere else," one of the defense officials said.

Craig said he informed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and is actively working with Virginia Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to resolve the matter.

"This is an issue of promotion and we're going to get it solved," Craig said. "The reality is, this is a long-term commitment that they made to the state of Idaho that they reneged on. The Air Force brought this on themselves."

Craig spokesman Will Hart said the senator had nearly a dozen meetings with Air Force officials trying to resolve the dispute, and "the wall continued to stand up."

"The Air Force was backing away" from its commitment, so the senator exercised his privilege, Hart said.

"Taxpayers spent nearly $40 million on infrastructure" at the Idaho Air National Guard, the would-be home to the cargo planes, according to Hart. "Why the Air Force would want to walk away from the $40 million for the full complement of cargo planes is unthinkable," the aide said.

He said the base now has C-130 planes that date back to the 1960s and the new planes are needed to update the fleet and bring the base up to a full squadron.

Craig said he would accept a firm commitment from the Air Force to deliver the needed planes in the coming years.

Senate custom

The practice of putting holds on legislation and nominations appears nowhere in the Senate rules yet has evolved as a cherished custom.

"The Senate has used a variety of tools over the years to get the attention of the executive branch," said Senate Historian Richard Baker. "It's their prerogative to do it, whether it's a filibuster or a hold."

Historically, the filibuster was used as a delaying tactic, but Baker said holds -- often not made public -- have become more common in the past decade.

Not all senators endorse the practice, and Sen. John McCain, the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was especially critical of the Craig hold.

"It is completely inappropriate to place a hold on the promotion of scores of service men and women who play no role whatsoever in establishing Air Force policy," McCain said in a statement. "Those who serve our country in uniform, many returning from Iraq, should not be caught in the cross fire of a parochial dispute."

A top aide to Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Levin, like McCain, believes it is wrong to use military nominees as leverage.

"Senator Levin thinks that all holds on military nominees are totally inappropriate," said the aide. "Military personnel don't make policy and when you have a policy dispute you don't deal with it by holding up their nominations."

As majority leader, Frist has the authority to break the stalemate and bring the issue to the floor for Craig to defend, but according to his office, he does not intend to get involved.

One senior GOP leadership aide said the Craig hold is not extraordinary. It is, in fact, "a fairly restrained rifle shot," the aide said, noting that lawmakers in years past have held up multiple nominations to make their point.

Currently, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, has a hold on the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget nominee, Clay Johnson, because of a dispute over funding for port security.

--CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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