Democrats add heft to effort to keep US Space Command in Colorado
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette | Published: January 31, 2021
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.(Tribune News Service) — With U.S. Space Command in the balance, a lawmaker perennially voted as the most conservative member of Congress is turning left for help.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn isn't switching parties, but the decision in the final days of the Trump administration to move the command and its 1,400 troops to Alabama has been compounded by the changed landscape in Washington, with Democrats controlling the House, Senate and White House.
And the Colorado Springs Republican needs Democratic help.
"It's going to take that kind of strong, bipartisan approach," Lamborn said. "The Democrats are obviously going to have more clout with the new administration."
The Democrats so far have been eager to assist.
Tennessee Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper called the move by Trump to overrule military advice to keep the command in Colorado and award it to Huntsville, Alabama, a "moondoggle" while calling for an investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general. Others outside Colorado also have demanded a review.
And some of the strongest voices backing Colorado Springs in the battle to keep the command at Peterson Air Force base are those closest to home.
Aurora Democratic Rep. Jason Crow has twice brought the issue up with new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
"I strongly urged him to take an immediate look at this and put a halt," Crow said, noting that Austin seemed amenable to a review. "In both occasions he told me he would be doing that, which was refreshing."
Colorado's nine-member congressional delegation, which includes three Republicans and six Democrats, sent a letter last week to Biden demanding a probe into the decision.
The Trump administration announced the move to Huntsville earlier this month. Sources say the president, in a show of political loyalty, overrode the Pentagon to personally award to Alabama the 1,400 troops who oversee military missions in space, along with the billions of contracting dollars which would follow the command to its new home.
Colorado has been the home for military satellite operations since the 1980s and housed the first version of U.S. Space Command before it was shuttered in 2002 amid post-Cold War budget cuts.
Congress ordered the reestablishment of U.S. Space Command in 2019 amid rising fears that rivals including Russia and China could target U.S. military satellites in a future war. Losing a battle in space could lose America a war on the ground, sea or air, since U.S. troops are reliant on satellites for navigation, communications and surveillance.
The command was initially established in Colorado Springs, which is the nation's hub for military operations in orbit, while the Pentagon decided on a final home. The process to house the command hit a series of snags, with Colorado coming out on top of an earlier process to keep the command that was later scuttled amid political pressure.
In May, the Pentagon named Colorado Springs the provisional home for the command, keeping it here through 2026, while kicking off a new process that drew 26 suitors from around the country. Even before Alabama was announced as the command's new home, Pentagon insiders claimed the military's process was derailed by Trump.
Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said the command is important to the entire state, which boasts the nation's second largest aerospace economy. But bigger than that, Bennet said, is his concern that moving the command could threaten national security
"I am going to fight like hell," Bennet pledged.
The state's senior senator, Bennet serves on that chamber's Intelligence Committee, and said growing threats to American interests in orbit make keeping the command here, close to other military space units, even more important.
"I believe the decision was made purely for politics, not in the interests of national security," he said.
The state's new senator, Democrat John Hickenlooper, said while he's unfamiliar with the politics behind the Alabama pick, it doesn't make business sense.
Hickenlooper was a businessman before he became Denver's mayor and Colorado's governor, operating some of the state's first brewpubs.
He said moving the headquarters to Alabama means duplicating infrastructure that's already in Colorado and can't be justified.
"The argument is a move to Huntsville will save them money in the long term," Hickenlooper said. "One of the most expensive things you can do is move personnel long distances and build from scratch facilities you already own."
Based on Pentagon housing allowances, the move to Huntsville would save the military about $5 million a year because rents are lower there. But building a new headquarters could cost more than $1 billion, meaning it would take two centuries before savings could be realized.
Bennet and Hickenlooper said they plan to personally appeal the decision to Biden, who was sworn into office a week after the move was announced.
"So, it is obviously one of our tip-top priorities," Hickenlooper said of the effort to keep the command in Colorado. "There's not a day that goes by when I don't have two or three interactions about it."
Bennet, whose contacts with Biden go back to when Biden was vice president, said he's already talked about the issue to top White House advisers.
"They are well-aware of this situation," he said.
Colorado's work has been mirrored by efforts from lawmakers in New Mexico and California, who have questioned the command's move.
The lawmakers include California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, who chairs a House subcommittee that controls the military's construction budget and includes Lamborn, Crow and Tennessee's Cooper as members.
Those four lawmakers alone could hold up money to back the Alabama move.
Lamborn, the ranking Republican on that subcommittee, said he also wants to dig into how the Alabama decision was reached.
In addition to getting the Government Accountability Office to investigate, "I want to have hearings on this at some point," Lamborn said.
The Accountability Office review can be requested by lawmakers and is essentially an outside audit of the decision that would result in public findings — good for building consensus for fighting the move, but throwing up no actual roadblock.
Lamborn has the most to lose if the command leaves his district. But some of his allies seem just as passionate.
Crow said the Huntsville move needs to be held up as an example of what shouldn't happen.
"At the end of the day, there is a long tradition that politics shouldn't play a role in our defense and our national security," he said.
Colorado's Democratic Gov. Jared Polis said the political power of the entire state will push to keep the command here.
"Our whole federal delegation, we are going to pursue every path possible to ensure the decision was made with honor," Polis said.
And the new Democratic president will soon get an earful on the issue, Polis pledged.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to the president yet. But that's the first conversation I will have."