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Amendment bodes well for Falls air base

With a key House committee approving a measure early Thursday that would keep an Air National Guard unit in Niagara Falls operating for another year, supporters of the local air base are increasingly confident that they've rescued the unit from its near-death experience.

A defense authorization bill that would have bolstered the 107th Airlift Wing's chances of survival got considerably stronger, thanks to a bipartisan amendment that preserves for a year all 5,100 Guard slots that the Air Force wanted to eliminate.

The amendment also would bar the Air Force from moving any Air National Guard planes for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

"I'm so happy," said Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, who co-sponsored the amendment with 17 colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee. "We could have ended up in a much different position without that amendment. It's a big win."

The House is expected to approve the defense authorization bill, including that amendment, as soon as next week.

Congressional sources on both sides of Capitol Hill said the amendment boosts the chances that the Senate will include similar language in its version of the bill.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is drafting such language to forestall the Air National Guard cuts at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and elsewhere, along with a measure that would make it more difficult for the Pentagon to unilaterally realign Guard units without congressional review.

Noting that she has been working with Hochul and other members of the Western New York congressional delegation, Gillibrand said: "We will be able to leverage her strategic amendment at the House Armed Services Committee in the Senate Armed Services Committee later this month to pass legislation that retains our National Guard airmen at NFARS and establishes an improved oversight process for any future restructuring proposals."

Lawmakers nationwide objected to the proposed Guard cuts, as did the National Guard Association of the United States, which lauded the House amendment.

In March, the Air Force called for eliminating the 107th's mission and taking away its three C-130 cargo planes -- moves that would have eliminated the jobs of 845 people, including 580 part-time Guard members. But prospects for the 107th's survival increased on Capitol Hill throughout the week.

At first, the House Armed Services Committee's defense authorization bill would have preserved 24 of the 65 C-130 cargo planes that the Air Force wanted to retire, giving the 107th -- which flies that plane -- a fighting chance of surviving for another year. Then the panel decided to save all 65 of those cargo planes.

And finally it approved, by voice vote, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif., to fund all 5,100 Guard slots that had been slated for elimination -- and to bar the Air Force from moving any Guard planes.

Given majority member Hunter's reputation as a defense expert, Hochul was eager to support his amendment. "This," she said, "is how you get it done."

Merrell A. Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, thanked Hochul "for her leadership" and said "we remain hopeful" about the air base's future.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com