What this country needs is a good icebreaker.

Not the kind that gets people talking to one another, although the refusal by many U.S. Senate Republicans to even discuss replacing the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia until after the election demonstrates once again the deep freeze that paralyzes our body politic.

No, today let’s cast off the political metaphors – sort of – and talk about an actual icebreaker.

“To me this is basic governance,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King in an interview from Washington, D.C. “It’s exactly like replacing a bridge on Interstate 95.”

King, along with fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others who think the United States lags far behind in the race to cash in on the rapidly warming Arctic shipping lanes, recently persuaded President Obama to include $150 million toward a new heavy Coast Guard icebreaker in the 2017 federal budget.

The funds would be used to design a vessel, at an estimated total cost of between $1 billion and $1.4 billion, to pick up where the Coast Guard’s 40-year-old USCGC Polar Star will soon leave off.

The nation’s only heavy icebreaker, which now chases the summer season from the Arctic to the Antarctic each year, is expected to last only until 2023 at the latest. The soonest a new icebreaker could be launched would be 2024 – and that’s if the political process proceeds smoothly.

Which, already, it hasn’t: Obama had no sooner put forward his budget earlier this month than the Republican chairmen for both the House and Senate budget committees announced that they would not even hold customary hearings with White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan to discuss the spending package.

King, while he “regrets” that move, is undaunted.

The icebreaker proposal will still likely go before the commerce and appropriations committees, he said, where he expects it will receive bipartisan support for one rather obvious reason. It makes sense.

Right now, King noted, as rising global temperatures make the Arctic more accessible with each passing year, Russia has four heavy icebreakers plying the Northwest Passage for both its commercial and military interests throughout the region.

The United States has the USCGC Polar Star, brought out of mothballs in 2013 because it was, well, better than nothing.

“They’ve got the equivalent of an interstate,” said King of the Russian icebreaker fleet. “And we’ve got the equivalent of a country road in western York County.”

So why should Mainers care about our country’s ability to get ships from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean via the northern route?

Take a look at a world map.

“The first ports on the East Coast when you go through the Northwest Passage are in Maine,” King noted, adding, “Places that sit astride trade routes prosper.”

King attended the annual Arctic Circle Assembly last October in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was impressed to find more than 2,000 attendees from as far away as China and Singapore – all focused on the emerging potential of the Northwest Passage as an alternative to the Panama Canal when it comes to transoceanic shipping.

(Fun fact: A shipment from China to the East Coast of the United States can arrive as many as 20 days sooner by taking the Northwest Passage than by the traditional Panama Canal route.)

“It’s as if we suddenly discovered the Mediterranean Sea,” King said. “This huge body of water that’s been inaccessible for all of human existence that is suddenly going to be accessible and it’s an extraordinary opportunity for trade.”

It could also be an extraordinary opportunity for Maine shipbuilding.

The USCGC Polar Star was built by Lockheed in Seattle way back in 1976. Thus one can argue that no company currently has a lock on designing and building icebreakers in this country.

So why not Bath Iron Works?

“I think it’s absolutely possible,” said King. “I’m not doing this because I think this is something they ultimately would get, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.”

General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works’ parent company, is playing it cool for now. In a brief prepared statement last week, spokeswoman Lucy Ryan said: “General Dynamics is assessing any information provided by the Coast Guard. We are not going to comment further on our plans for bidding on the program.”

Regardless of who builds it, King said, time is wasting.

“If you’re talking about a ship that takes eight years from planning to building, you need to start now,” he said.

Which brings us back to Congress, where good ideas go to die.

Maybe, before we start asking our elected representatives on Capitol Hill to do their constitutional duty and actually fill that Supreme Court vacancy, we should set the bar at national icebreaker and work our way up.

After all, it’s hard to think of anything less controversial.

It doesn’t involve God or guns, it has nothing to do with Mexico and while it does touch on climate change, the sea lanes are thawing whether we like it or not. The icebreaker will just make them a tad more navigable.

Better yet, by getting behind this project, Congress won’t just be breaking the ice. They will, quite literally, be blazing a path to prosperity.

So, budget hearing or no budget hearing, this thing should have fast track written all over it. Right?

“You don’t sincerely expect me to predict that, do you?” replied King. “My capacity for surprise hasn’t been exhausted. Anything can be bogged down in something, but I sincerely hope this one isn’t.”

Me, too.

Congress, we beg you, build us a new icebreaker.

We’ll even name it the USCGC Filibuster.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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