Courtney poised to take over subcommittee with oversight of Navy shipbuilding

With the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is in line to chair the subcommittee that makes key decisions about military spending, putting him in a better position to advocate for increased submarine spending and production.

Courtney has been a member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight over Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force programs, for nearly 12 years and currently is serving as the ranking member, the No. 2 in charge of the committee. He easily won re-election Tuesday to his seventh term.

He said he will pursue the chairmanship when the new Congress convenes at the start of next year. He's likely to get the job, given Democrats will be in control of the House for the first time in eight years.

As chair, Courtney, whose district includes submarine builder Electric Boat, would have a crucial role in setting the agenda of the subcommittee, including prioritizing Connecticut's defense industry. He's already eyeing a fight over military spending.

President Donald Trump has said he will cut the 2020 defense budget by 2.2 percent to $700 billion as part of a larger effort to decrease federal spending. Trump reportedly asked his Cabinet secretaries, aside from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, to cut 5 percent from their budgets.

"That's going to make the decision-making for next year's defense bill very challenging," Courtney said in a phone interview this past week. "In terms of trying to make priorities in the budget, it's important there's a strong voice about the fact that the undersea fleet is a priority."

At the same time, Congress will be faced with funding requests as part of an estimated $128 billion submarine program. The Navy plans to buy 12 new ballistic-missile submarines, known as the Columbia class, which primarily will be built by EB. The first submarine is expected to cost $8.2 billion to build.

"Over the next few years, the growing cost of that program is really going to impinge on the (Navy's) shipbuilding account, so that needs advocacy in the coming years," Courtney said.

He's also hoping to convince his colleagues to approve the building of more attack submarines. The Navy is negotiating its next submarine contract, and Congress has given the service the option to buy up to 12 attack submarines over a five-year period, as opposed to 10.

Other key congressional committees are expected to get new, Democratic leadership, and that likely will lead to efforts to push back against what the Trump administration has done over the past two years, and against the president himself.

Voters elected the incoming House majority as "a check on the president," Courtney said.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., already has said he will ask Trump to release his tax returns, if named as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee has the authority to request the president's tax returns, but Neal said there would likely be a legal challenge.

After Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week, House Democrats began strategizing how to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

"The best way to protect Mueller is for us to pass legislation that has already gotten through the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, which codifies that he could only be removed for cause," Courtney said by phone last week after participating in a Democratic caucus call to discuss Sessions' firing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters in Kentucky that such legislation is not necessary because he doesn't think Trump will fire Mueller.

In the interim, Democrats will move to preserve records from the special counsel investigation, to make sure there's "no action to eliminate files or investigative notes," Courtney said.

"Even though it's a lame-duck Congress, we'll still have high tension," he said.

However, he sees areas, such as infrastructure, where Democrats and Trump can work together. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who is in line to lead the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, will be pushing for a big infrastructure spending bill, Courtney said, which has the support of business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, and the agriculture and maritime industries.

"The door is going to be open for the president in that regard," he said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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