Leahy works to get more business for GE RutlandAlbert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talks with employees during a recent visit to the General Electric Windcrest Road facility in Rutland Town.
It could have been mistaken for a campaign stop, if not for the fact it’s not an election year. But there was Sen. Patrick Leahy working the crowd, or in this case, GE workers, who lined up to greet Vermont’s senior senator on a tour of the massive GE Aviation plant last week.
As the senior member of the Senate and president pro tempore, Leahy was accompanied by a entourage of staffers and security personnel. He stopped and chatted with familiar faces, smiling, shaking hands and posing for photos.
But his visit was more than just a social call.
Leahy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is pushing the Navy to develop a new version of the F414 engine – the GE-built engine that powers the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter and the E/A-18 Growler, an electronic attack aircraft, which can jam enemy air defense systems.
In a brief closed door meeting, Leahy addressed more than two dozen GE officials and plant leaders on his efforts.
When the briefing was opened to reporters, Leahy said that with the help of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., he was able to include language in the appropriations bill calling on the Navy to develop the next generation of the F414 called the “Enhanced Durability Engine.”
“This new engine could save the Navy $5 billion in lifecycle costs. That’s significant,” Leahy said. “It can provide a 20 percent increase in thrust.”
He said if the enhanced engine is funded and developed it would mean more work for Rutland.
Leahy said he brags about Rutland to the Pentagon and to the Senate Appropriations Committee for good reason.
“There’s no place that does this better in America or the world,” he said. “It’s right here in Rutland and the reason why you can expand and keep going is that people know it’s going to be done exactly right, whether it’s the commercial airline or the military.”
Rutland is the mainstay of GE’s jet engine compressor blade operation. The plants on Windcrest Road and Columbian Avenue manufacture engine components for just about every GE commercial and military jet engine.
Business at the plant is robust, spurred largely by the commercial aircraft sector and Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner.
GE invested tens of millions of dollars in the Windcrest Road plant to manufacture compressor blades for the GEnx — the fuel-efficient engine that powers the 787 and the freighter version of the Boeing 747.
As a result, GE has been in a hiring mode. Employment at the plants now stands at 1,100. Starting pay is $27 an hour, making GE if not the best paying employer in the region, than without question near the very top.
“We’ve hired about 250 people, so we’ve grown since the downturn back in the ’90s and it’s really come back strong,” said Dan DiBattista, the plant manager.
Work at the plant is 75 percent commercial and 25 percent military.
However, the Defense Department is faced with $50 billion in sequestration cuts when the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Leahy didn’t hide his frustration with Congress using sequestration to take an indiscriminate ax to the federal budget.
“Just an automatic across the board cut will hurt our economy tremendously,” he said. “It will increase unemployment and will actually cost the taxpayers a lot more money to do that kind of across the board cut ... because of the jobs that will be lost.”
He said a far better alternative is for members of Congress to vote specific cuts up or down and not hide behind sequestration.
In addressing the controversy over possible deployment of the F-35 fighter in Burlington, Leahy said while he strongly supports deploying the fighter with the Vermont Air National Guard, he denied a report in the Boston Globe in April alleging that he attempted to unduly influence the Department of Defense selection process.
“The fact of the matter is neither I nor anybody else can tell the Pentagon what to do with an environmental impact statement,” Leahy said.
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