A key Senate panel yesterday moved to ensure that Baltimore's only remaining shipyard could continue to bid for Navy ship repair contracts critical to keeping it open.
The Appropriations Committee, acting on a $242 billion spending bill for the Defense Department for fiscal year 1996, approved an amendment blocking a new Navy policy that would have ended Baltimore's so-called home port status, thus making Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s BethShip yard ineligible for most Navy work.
The policy, issued last month by Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, directed that companies bidding on short-term ship repairs -- those that take less than six months -- could be no farther than 75 miles away from the ship's base.
Previously the distance had been 165 miles.
The change effectively prohibited the Sparrows Point shipyard from bidding on most Navy jobs since those ships are usually based in Norfolk, Va.
The directive brought a strong reaction from Bethlehem Steel 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 dodged Dalton's torpedo," said Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who introduced the amendment. "I think the Navy will go ballistic at this, but we feel that we were treated arbitrarily."
Ms. Mikulski said the amendment won the support of Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Senate committee.
In addition to Baltimore, Portland, Ore., was affected by the Navy secretary's directive.
After a lukewarm letter from Secretary Dalton last week, the Maryland Senate delegation decided to introduce the amendment to block spending on ship repairs if the home port status granted to Baltimore was eliminated.
In the letter, Mr. Dalton promised to re-evaluate the decision to end the special status that brought in nearly $68 million of work to BethShip during the past nine years.
But he downplayed its impact on Baltimore.
Although Navy work represents only one-fifth of overall repair contracts in the past decade at BethShip, its contribution has been increasingly important with other business scarce.
Currently, fewer than 500 people are working at BethShip, with an additional 600 shipbuilders on stand-by.
To become effective, the amended appropriations bill must be passed by both houses of Congress.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin plans to introduce a similar amendment on the floor of the House next week, a spokesperson for his office said yesterday.
Also yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich intervened with a letter to the secretary of defense urging him to order the Navy secretary to reconsider his directive.