Pentagon to delay tanker bid deadline for 60 days

WASHINGTON — A day after President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed it at the White House, the Pentagon said Wednesday it would delay for 60 days the deadline for submitting bids on a $35 billion contract for aerial refueling tankers if a European company promised to compete.

The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., which had sought a 90-day extension, was cagey about its plans. Guy Hicks, an EADS spokesman, explained the 90 days would be the minimum needed to prepare a "responsible proposal" but said the company would consider a 60-day extension.

Pentagon officials said they expected an EADS bid.

"We wouldn't be having the conversations we have been having unless they were seriously considering a bid," said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon has given EADS until April 10 to make up its mind, according to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

The decision to delay the bid deadline angered Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill.

"I am concerned these kinds of concessions will mean yet another failed tanker competition. This kind of action is further evidence of why Americans don't trust their government to get anything done on time and under budget," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement.

"This is completely unacceptable," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. "The extension means that we are once again bending the rules for a company that has refused to play by them. It is time to stop being held hostage by Airbus' 11th-hour demands."

About 9,000 Boeing jobs are at stake in Washington state and roughly 1,000 in Kansas.

U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, said the administration was pandering to foreign interests.

"It is outrageous that the Obama administration has caved to European lobbying one day after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy," Tiahrt said in a statement.

"I am deeply disappointed in the Pentagon's decision to further extend its deadline," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Hays. "This bidding process has already taken eight years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. As I recently communicated to the Department of Defense, replacing the Eisenhower-era tanker fleet is essential for the security of our country and the safety of our troops and America cannot afford another decade of delay," Moran said.

EADS is the parent company of Airbus, the chief rival of Boeing in the commercial airplane market. Boeing has said it will bid on the tanker contract.

Morrell said a 60-day delay would be reasonable and not without precedent in such a large contract. Morrell also denied that local or international politics played a role in the Pentagon's decision to postpone the deadline.

"Politics are not a part of this process, never have been, never will be," Morrell said.

At a joint news conference Tuesday, Sarkozy said he and Obama had discussed the tanker contract. The French president said EADS would bid.

"If you say to me the request will be free, fair and transparent, then we say EADS will bid and we trust you," Sarkozy said.

Obama sought to distance himself from the contract, saying Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in charge of procurement decisions.

"The president does not meddle in these decisions," Obama said.

The White House declined comment Wednesday and referred questions to the Pentagon.

EADS' congressional supporters said the Pentagon had made the right decision in delaying the bid deadline.

"It is my hope that EADS will be able to offer a competitive bid, despite the fact the RFP (request for proposals) has been skewed toward Boeing from the beginning," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

EADS, along with such European leaders as Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have said the current competition unfairly favors Boeing's midsize tanker.

Boeing had no immediate comment.

Dicks said he was disappointed by the Pentagon's announcement, but he added that the Pentagon made clear that it wasn't changing any of the criteria for the bids or the basis for evaluating them.

"I told them a week or two delay would be acceptable," Dicks said. "But the big thing is they haven't changed the criteria."

The Pentagon said it still hoped to award the contract in the early fall.