Senate to begin debate on bill that would turn Coltsville into national park

The blue onion dome at Coltsville. It is not, in fact, the original.

Michael Gambina

The blue onion dome at Coltsville. It is not, in fact, the original.

Washington – A massive defense bill that would authorize billions of dollars in spending on Connecticut-based defense projects — and turn Hartford’s Coltsville neighborhood into a national park — may face its first test in the Senate today.

The bill was easily approved by the House last week and there’s  little question the defense portion would pass the Senate. But there’s pressure to strip out the package that would create dozens of new national parks and heritage areas.

That section of the bill incorporates legislation promoted by Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, and supported by the entire Connecticut delegation. In Connecticut, it would turn  the Coltsville neighborhood, home to the former factories and home of Samuel Colt, into a national park.

But the legislation has been denounced by key Republican senators who have threatened to hold up the bill in the waning days of the 113th Congress if the public lands package is not removed.

“The House and Senate should reject this attempt by self-serving politicians to exploit the men and women of the military to serve their special interests,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Gaston Mooney, executive editor of Conservative Review, denounced the public lands package as “jamming liberal pet projects into a defense bill.”

That opposition has killed any chance of the bill’s quick passage, since a single senator can stop a bill’s progress unless a cloture vote is held and at least 60 senators vote to move the legislation ahead.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not yet set a schedule for consideration of the defense bill. Its proponents, however, hope a cloture vote will be held today with a vote for final passage of the bill later this week.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a Senate sponsor of the Coltsville bill, said he is optimistic the entire National Defense Authorization Bill (NDAA) will be approved by the Senate.

“Once the Senate starts stripping out parts of the bill, it’s a slippery slope that could doom the entire bill,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The $577 defense bill would establish a “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund” that would allow the Pentagon to put as much as $3.5 billion in a special account, outside the Navy’s normal shipbuilding budget, to build a new class of submarines that could be built by Electric Boat in Groton.

Those new submarines would replace the Navy’s fleet of aging Ohio-class missile subs built by Electric Boat. EB now hopes to win contracts for the replacements, which will be the most expensive submarines in the world.

Some of the military aircraft and submarines that would be funded under the defense bill.

The defense bill would also approve spending $6.7 billion for procurement of 34 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and $1.6 billion for research and development of the F-35, whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney.

The bill would also authorize $1.6 billion to purchase seven KC-46 Pegasus tankers, whose engines are also made by Pratt & Whitney; and $777 million for research and development of the aircraft. The KC-46 will replace the current fleet of 1950s-era KC-135s.

Sikorsky will also benefit from the bill, which contains:

  • $1.3 billion for 85 Black Hawk helicopters for the Army and Army National Guard
  • $210 million for eight Navy MH-60S Knighthawk helicopters
  • $879.9 million for 29 Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopters
  • $573 million to develop the MH-53K Super Stallion transport

The defense bill authorizes $130 million to upgrade the nation’s fleet of C-130 transport planes – eight are flown by the Connecticut National Guard – and $16.3 million for a facility at Bradley International Airport to maintain the guard’s C-130s.

Opposition to training Syrian rebels

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, was among a group of Democrats who tried to amend the bill to strip funding of the Syrian rebels, but GOP House leaders did not allow amendments to the bill.

“I continue to have profound concerns about the president’s plan to arm and train the so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels,” Himes said. “The administration has not adequately explained how the United States will vet the rebels, what kinds of weapons we will give them and how we will make sure these weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, was the only Connecticut House member to vote against the NDAA because of the $500 million the bill would authorize to train Syrian rebels.

But the larger controversy centers on the bill’s public lands provision.

Efforts have been going on for years to turn the 260-acre site on the bank of the Connecticut River into a national park memorializing the Colt Armory complex and it’s role in the American industrial revolution.

The Coltsville National Park boundaries would include the complex of 19th century factories; the Colt residence, called Armsmear; the Church of the Good Shepherd; Colt Park; the Potsdam cottages; and the James Colt House.

Much of the Coltsville park area is in private hands. Apartments, private companies and a school occupy parts of the former Colt factories.

But the legislation calls for the owners of the blue-domed East Armory to donate at least 10,000 square feet for a museum. It also promises the National Park Service a “sufficient amount of land” to help create a national park.

The site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

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