Perhaps it was the platter of sole and scallops perfumed with anise, or the caramel-crusted dessert. Or maybe it was the 1995 Grand Cru...

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WASHINGTON — Perhaps it was the platter of sole and scallops perfumed with anise, or the caramel-crusted dessert. Or maybe it was the 1995 Grand Cru Bordeaux the Alabama delegation served when it courted the Airbus team during the Paris Air Show last week.

But it’s more likely that Alabama won the bidding war to host a new U.S. plant for Airbus with their pièce de résistance: a steaming plate of senior senators.

What could be more tempting to Airbus and its parent company, EADS, than two powerful Republican Southern politicians as allies in the battle with Boeing for a new Air Force tanker contract?

Both Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions were on hand yesterday when EADS announced it had chosen Mobile, Ala., as the home base to launch its attempt to win a potential multibillion-dollar contract for refueling tankers.

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The choice impressed political observers, but set off a storm of complaints by Washington state politicians about EADS’ latest attempt to paint itself American.

For six months, European Aeronautic Defence & Space has been the focus of a beauty contest by 32 states that wanted to host the Airbus Engineering Center. The center will start in early 2006 with 150 jobs but could grow to 1,000 if Airbus gets the tanker contract.

At the moment, there is no contract; the Pentagon is assessing whether it needs new tankers.

The original tanker contract, worth $23 billion, belonged to Boeing until a messy procurement scandal sent two of its executives to federal prison. That opened the door to a potential full competition with Boeing’s archrival, Airbus.

The tanker scandal still dogs Boeing, silencing some old friends in Congress, even while Airbus is making new ones.

Ralph Crosby, chairman and chief executive of EADS North America, demurred at a news conference yesterday when asked about the role politics played in choosing Mobile.

He said the key factor was the industrial center’s proximity to the Port of Mobile. Airbus parts will only have to travel 2,000 feet from the dock to a rail car to get to the plant, he said. “I like that 2,000 feet.”

But later, in an interview, Crosby acknowledged, “We weren’t going to go with a state that didn’t have someone on Appropriations or Armed Forces [committees].”

The Airbus site choice will be “absolutely” important to the tanker contract, he said.

Boeing already has operations in Alabama, including about 2,700 employees in Huntsville that support its space programs

Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said, “EADS has solidified a lot of support on the Senate side with this.”

Shelby is what’s known in Congress as a “cardinal,” the chairman of one of the appropriations subcommittees that distribute money to states. He has good ties to President Bush.

Ashdown said Shelby’s subcommittee on Commerce and Science has sent about $118 million to Alaska, home of another key “cardinal,” Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who could play a role in the EADS-Boeing war.

Shelby is also on the subcommittee that handles funds for the Defense Department.

Sessions, Alabama’s junior senator, is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Now, said Shelby, “We’re gonna push every way we can” to allow the Pentagon to resume seeking a tanker contract.

With their seniority and their relationship with Bush, Alabama’s two senators are problematic opponents for Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Democrats with no ties to the White House.

In addition, Airbus has made friends in Mississippi, where it set up a Eurocopter facility in 2003.

Yesterday, EADS officials announced they want to groom an aerospace work force in that state. Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, another Republican, is the chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House is where most of Boeing’s hopes may lie now, said Ashdown. Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, home of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican. But he has not publicly spoken up for Boeing since the tanker scandal became a criminal matter.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, has been straddling fences between Democrats and Republicans on Boeing’s behalf.

Last month, House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Cal., inserted a resolution in the defense budget authorization bill that would prevent “foreign” firms from winning a U.S. defense contract if they received government subsidies. Dicks praised Hunter’s move.

But Mobile’s congressman, Republican Jo Bonner, dismissed it. “It says no ‘foreign’ companies, and as of today, well, EADS isn’t foreign,” Bonner said, smiling.

The Senate and House will have to compromise on this resolution before they can pass a defense budget, and Bonner explained, “The Senate side has prevailed before on this issue.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said the restriction won’t stay in; and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., has said he doesn’t want to bar European rivals.

“Airbus made a good decision; they’re gonna have a lot of people there in the Senate who are supportive,” said Dicks.

“But just a few months ago, the Senate just passed a resolution 96-0 against Airbus’ subsidies,” he said, citing a measure advanced by Murray and Cantwell in April. “Hopefully,” Dicks added, “they’ll all remember that.”

Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense, said Airbus is wise to emphasize the number of American workers it may hire.

“The Europeans are doing the same thing they did to get the contract for the president’s helicopter,” he said, referring to the European-U.S. consortium that unexpectedly won the “Marine One” chopper deal.

Crosby and the many ‘Bama Boys at the news conference praised the patriotism of Alabama’s workers and the Mobile-French connection. The French founded Mobile.

Bonner promised “a tanker made in America, with American labor, that just so happens to speak with an accent.”

He paused, letting the crowd wonder if he meant Airbus’ French provenance. Then he added with a drawl, “A Southern accent.”

But Murray scoffed later, “Airbus has shown its true colors time and again, and they’re anything but red, white and blue.”

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com