U.S. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton has given a lukewarm response to a request from Maryland's senators that he reverse his recent order that effectively blocks Baltimore's only remaining major shipyard from bidding on critical Navy repair work.
But another member of the Maryland delegation, trying to muster some political clout, has asked House Speaker Newt Gingrich to lobby Mr. Dalton on behalf of the Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s BethShip at Sparrows Point.
"We're a little more optimistic on our side," Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday. "The Republican leadership around here wields a certain degree of influence these days."
Mr. Gingrich is expected to contact the secretary early next week, Mr. Ehrlich said.
Earlier this week, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski met with Mr. Dalton. In a letter following their visit, Mr. Dalton promised to re-evaluate the decision to end "home port" status that brought in nearly $68 million of work to BethShip during the past nine years.
Nevertheless, the Navy secretary downplayed the impact of his decision on Baltimore.
"Our analysis of historical data indicates only a minimal impact on Bethlehem Ship," Mr. Dalton wrote in a letter to the senators.
He also said that the shipyard could continue bidding on jobs that require six months or longer. Those jobs tend to be more lucrative but less numerous. Of the six Navy repair contracts BethShip has received in the past nine years, only one took longer than six months, although it represented half the $68 million in total Navy repair work.
Mr. Dalton promised to re-evaluate his decision by end of August, prompting the Maryland senators to ask for a decision in 10 days. Senate staff members said that would give the senators time to take some legislative action before the Senate completes work on the Department of Defense appropriations bill.
June, Mr. Dalton issued the directive that reduced from 165 miles to 75 miles the radius from which companies can bid on repair work on ships based in other ports. The move stemmed from a desire to reduce the time that sailors must spend away from home.
Ships must be manned even while in dry dock for repair. Work done in Baltimore, for example, meant that sailors would be kept 140 miles from their homes rather than at their base in Norfolk.
The directive brought a strong reaction from BethShip and from the state's congressional delegation, which insists that even the relatively small amount of Navy repair work at BethShip is critical to the shipyard's viability.
"We told [the secretary] that it would have a devastating effect on BethShip and that it was not in the national interest to further weaken the shipbuilding industry," said William Toohey, a spokesman for Mr. Sarbanes.
Currently, fewer than 500 people are working at BethShip, with an additional 600 shipbuilders waiting for work. Although Navy work has represented only one-fifth of the yard's overall repair contracts in the past decade, its contribution has been important with other business scarce.