When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi chose to have his military jet to land at the Little Rock Air Force Base to kick off his fund-raising visit here a week ago, the locals figured he had something up his sleeve.
When he announced that he also would be taking a quick tour of the base and making an announcement, he definitely had people's attention.
After all, Lott and his fellow Republican, Ark. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, had been sparring openly for several months over the fate of this very base, which has long been an important economic powerhouse in central Arkansas.
Hutchinson, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has charged that a proposal supported by Lott to split the C-130 training mission at the Arkansas base with Keesler Air Force Base in Lott's home state of Mississippi and Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia was unfair, and might well force the Little Rock base to close.
The Arkansas base currently trains air crews from all military branches and 27 allied nations. For months, Hutchinson and the rest of Arkansas' congressional delegation had been worrying out loud that Lott would stab his neighboring state in the back in favor of his own state's interests.
Fearing the worst, Hutchinson had even taken the radical step of defying the majority leader by using his senatorial privilege to place a "hold" on the nominations of three Air Force officers and one defense department official -- all in protest over the C-130 issue.
Hutchinson demanded "credible assurances" that Little Rock Air Force Base would remain viable, regardless of any new plans to reassign training pilots to fly C-130 cargo planes. And he promised his nervous constituents that, if necessary, he would "go to war" with Lott over this issue.
Upon his arrival, Lott put an end to all that with a surprise announcement that left Hutchinson smiling broadly and the local reporters close to a state of shock. "It [the Little Rock base] is the current and future C-130 center of excellence," Lott said. "It is the permanent training base for C-130s. It is the current and future C-130 training base."
To Arkansans' ears, Lott wasn't mincing words: Their base would be saved.
Now that this was taken care of, Lott turned his attention to a whirlwind night of fund-raising at an annual $250-per-person holiday reception for Hutchinson's 2002 campaign, and a $100-a-plate dinner for the state Republican Party.
The entire performance was a fascinating display of how domestic political power is exercised in the post-Cold War world. Lott and Hutchinson, fellow Republicans, were fighting over the spoils of military spending for their relatively poor states in an era when defense spending has been gradually ebbing nationwide.
Though Mississippi ranks only 31st among the states in population, it was 15th in per capita defense spending in 1998, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit research group. The state expects to get another $8 billion chunk in the fiscal 2000 defense appropriations bill, thanks to Lott.
In fact, the Senate majority leader has lined up so many new projects for Mississippi that he has had to separate the state into regions in order to list them all. Among the year 2000 deals: destroyers, ship berthing centers, classrooms, barracks, flight simulators, hangars, computer software, crash seats and a tank-firing range. A proposal to build a $1.5 billion ship in Pascagoula is also cruising through Congress, and Lott ensured that a hurricane-hunting 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron in Biloxi receives the newest and first models of the C-130J.
"I lobbied hard for those airplanes and I got them," Lott told Arkansans during his visit. "We had C-130s that were 30 to 35 years old, and they were falling apart. Our C-130s are hurricane hunters and that's an important mission. We needed them and we got them."
Lott acknowledged that Mississippi has a new C-130 simulator, a much-needed piece of equipment at Little Rock, which hasn't had one in nearly two decades. Although the Arkansas base isn't scheduled to get its first C-130J until 2006, Lott said "that's not a reasonable schedule if they're going to be the permanent C-130 training school.
"I pledge that I'm going back and I'm going to work hard to not only get C-130J simulators at Little Rock but to also get the C-130Js delivered to Little Rock sooner," Lott stated.
"I was hopeful [about Lott's decision] and I was pleased at how forthright he was," Hutchinson told reporters afterward. "We have it on record and on film and we will hold him to it."
Still, all might not prove to be so rosy in the future battles over these precious military resources, because Lott dropped a new name into the C-130 controversy during his visit: presidential hopeful Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"Now we may have McCain to fight," Lott said, referring to a recent Republican debate when McCain criticized the spending on C-130s, saying: "Look, we've been buying C-130s for 10 years. We're going to have a C-130 in every school yard in America. There's no need for much of the equipment we are purchasing, but the effect of the special interests in Washington and their big contributions can prevent us not only from buying the equipment we need, but taking care of the men and women in the military."
So another showdown over the C-130 could yet be in the works among the various Republican camps.
If so, Arkansas Republicans certainly didn't want Lott to leave town without a reminder of the promises he issued when he was here. Accordingly, the program for his GOP fund-raiser was designed as a souvenir he could take back with him to Washington -- with a model of a C-130 as its centerpiece.