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Military Sports Sponsorships Debate Could Impact Dale Earnhardt Jr. And National Guard

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., drives the #88 National Guard / Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2012.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., drives the #88 National Guard / Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is waving a warning flag over the military spending millions of dollars to sponsor NASCAR cars and other sports to attract recruits.

Challenging lawmakers’ resolve to cut federal spending, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum pleaded with their colleagues Wednesday to back a measure that would trim $72.3 million from a $608 billion defense spending bill. The amendment would target money that the National Guard spends to sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR, the Marine Corps spends on Ultimate Fighting Championship and other military sponsorships from fishing to hot rod racing.

The House debated the far-reaching defense legislation that provides money for war, troops and weapons next year. Yet talk of Earnhardt’s No. 88, bass fishing and NASCAR dominated the discussion in what shaped up as a fierce fight.

A vote was scheduled for Wednesday evening on the military sponsorships.

Kingston, a Georgian who says he hails from NASCAR and military country, insisted that the sponsorship money was ineffective, attracting few recruits, and made no sense as the Army shrinks from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000 and the Marine Corps drops by 20,000, to 182,000. The end of the Iraq war, the drawdown in Afghanistan and the nation’s fiscal woes have reshaped the defense budget, which has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.

“If someone is going to sign away five or six years of their life, it’s going to take more than an ad on an automobile,” Kingston told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference prior to the floor debate.

He said the money should be spent on hiring more recruiters not military sponsorships.

“We’re in a fiscal crisis here,” said Minnesota’s McCollum. “Bass fishing is not national security.”

But the two faced strong opposition from members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation as well as lawmakers from Mississippi and Florida. North Carolina is home to the speedway in Rockingham and the Richard Petty Museum.

Republican Rep. Sue Myrick dismissed the amendment as micromanaging the military’s recruiting for the all-volunteer force. Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell said the relationship between the military and NASCAR was critical.

Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said there was “no reason Congress should be telling the Department of Defense where and how to spend money.” In fact, Congress repeatedly instructs the Pentagon on how to spend the money it appropriates.

The effort by Kingston and McCollum suffered a blow when a separate provision of the bill barring funds for sponsoring professional and semiprofessional motorsports and other sports was ruled out of order by the presiding officer in the House. The two lawmakers still pressed ahead with their amendment.

The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the overall defense bill after lawmakers abandoned the budget levels they agreed to last year and added $3 billion to preserve some programs and add money to others. Specifically, the bill blocks the Pentagon’s plans to retire or transfer various aircraft, including C-27Js, C-23s and a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.

Various sports leagues weighed in this week on the military sponsorships, sending a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders urging them to oppose the amendment.

“Sports marketing has long been an important element in the U.S. Armed Forces’ efforts to reach young adults and active duty personnel regarding the military’s missions and objectives that serve our country,” said the letter to House Republican and Democratic leaders from NASCAR, IZOD IndyCar series, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

“The benefits from these types of sponsorships offset the minimal costs to taxpayers,” the letter said.

In recent days, the Army ended its sponsorship with Stewart-Haas Racing, with the service saying the money was not a great investment.

McCollum also challenged the spending on military bands. She sponsored an amendment that would reduce the budget for military bands from $388 million to $200 million. She questioned the need to spend nearly $4 billion over the next decade on military bands and musical performances. The military has 140 bands with 5,000 full-time musicians.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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