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WASHINGTON -- Democrats are pushing for Coast Guard icebreaker ships to be included in a funding bill that must be completed by Dec. 7 to avoid a partial government shutdown. But the move -- largely aimed at countering Russian influence in the Arctic -- is complicating negotiations already mired in debate over spending for President Donald Trump's border wall.

The party wants $750 million to expand the Coast Guard's small fleet of ships in the Arctic, where Russia has made inroads in recent years as the U.S. moves at a glacial pace. The money would pay for a new polar icebreaker, a large ship used for scientific research, defense and -- as the name suggests -- to break apart sheets of ice, allowing other vessels to traverse Arctic pathways.

The Coast Guard employed more than a half dozen of the ships in the 1970s, but is down to two operable ones assigned to the Arctic -- the Polar Star and the Healy, both of which have long surpassed their 30-year service lives.

Both ships were built in Seattle and are docked at the U.S. Coast Guard base there, providing huge boosts for the area's shipbuilding industries. Along with the Alaskan congressional delegation, Washington state's two senators have played a key role over the years in securing funding for the icebreakers.

"Washington state's active military communities and ship maintenance industries, as well as our geographic proximity to Arctic waters, make it an ideal home for the nation's icebreaker fleet," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "I think it's a critical part of our infrastructure that needs to be replaced."

Russia has more than 40 polar icebreakers, including several nuclear-powered behemoths, extending its military and economic presence in the region as warming temperatures and melting ice make more of the Arctic accessible.

Rep. John Garamendi of California, the top Democrat on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee, said adding more polar icebreakers to the region will help the U.S. guard against growing Russian influence.

Russians are "able to assert their dominance" of much of the Arctic, thanks to its large fleet, and the Coast Guard is "hard-pressed" to stop them, Garamendi said.

He also thinks icebreakers are needed to help commercial ships navigating icy passageways stay safe.

"What do you do when some boat hits an ice flow? Do we have a Titanic issue?" he said. As of now, there's "no way to provide assurance of search and rescue."

But Republicans see more imminent danger from Mexico, which Trump has long warned is "not sending [its] best" people across the border.

"They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," he said in 2015, later making a wall along the border one of his main campaign promises.

Trump has failed to deliver so far, but Republicans are making a push to fund the wall before the end of the year. In the House of Representatives, Democrats proposed reallocating $750 million of the $5 billion earmarked for the border wall and putting it toward a new icebreaker.

Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the House's Homeland Security subcommittee, opposed that unsuccessful Democratic amendment in July, but said this month that an additional icebreaker is "one of the things Democrats really want, and Republicans too."

Information for this article was contributed by Bryan Lowry of the McClatchy Washington Bureau.

A Section on 11/24/2018

Print Headline: Democrats seek funds for icebreaker vessels

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