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Air Guard at Falls base likely to get year reprieve; House bill would preserve role of all 65 cargo planes

An Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls is increasingly likely to survive for at least another year, thanks to legislation that was moving through the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

A defense authorization bill for fiscal 2013, which the panel spent the day marking up, would fund the continued operation of the 65 C-130 cargo planes the Air Force had wanted to mothball.

That means the C-130s flown by the Guard's 107th Airlift Wing at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station will likely stay there if the Senate adopts similar language in its version of the bill and if President Obama signs it.

It means the 845 people who work at the Niagara Falls unit of the Guard, including 580 part-time members, will likely have work for another year if the bill moves forward.

"I have to say, we've come a long way in a short time," said Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, an Armed Services Committee member who has been pushing to save the Guard unit at the Falls base. "And I think this [bill] is going to be the vehicle that helps this base."

The bill, which committee leaders changed to save all 65 of the cargo planes rather than the 24 that it had previously promised to preserve, responds to the concerns of governors nationwide, who feared that the Air National Guard cuts would hamper emergency response.

Congressional sources said they expected committee approval of the legislation late Wednesday or early this morning.

The bill authorizes $554 billion in military funding for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, which is $3.7 billion more than Obama requested in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal.

A massive measure that touches every aspect of the military, the defense authorization bill calms a firestorm the Air Force created in March, when it announced plans to cut 5,100 Air National Guard positions across the country.

That plan aims to end the 107th's mission and remove its three C-130s from Niagara Falls.

But in response to the Air Force plan, the Council of Governors immediately began drafting an alternative, while lawmakers went to work reshaping the defense authorization bill to restore as many Guard slots as possible.

The bill would preserve 2,373 of those 5,100 Guard positions, and because it also would keep all those C-130 cargo planes active, congressional sources and advocates of the Niagara base said it's very likely the bill would keep the 107th alive.

But just to make sure the Air Force doesn't unilaterally decide to remove C-130s from Niagara Falls and other Guard and Reserve bases, Hochul was expected to join more-senior lawmakers from both parties to offer an amendment that would bar such moves.

With or without the amendment, advocates of the Niagara air base were pleased to hear that the bill could stand in the way of the Air Force's plan to downsize the National Guard.

"I'm encouraged to hear this," said Merrell A. Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council. "Hopefully, it will work out in Niagara's favor."

Once the bill passes the full committee, it will head to the House floor for a vote.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to start drawing up its version of the defense authorization bill next week. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other senators are expected to push for changes in the measure that, like the House bill, would boost the Air National Guard.

Once the two houses of Congress pass their versions of the measure, a House-Senate conference committee will work out a compromise. And after final congressional approval, the bill will go to Obama for his signature.

Hochul said she was encouraged by Gillibrand's efforts on the issue in the Senate and by the general trend toward saving the Guard slots.

But at the same time, she stressed that the House committee's work on the measure was just an early step in a long process.

As for the bill's final fate, she said: "No guarantees, no promises -- other than that we're fighting really hard."