FAIRBANKS -- While the state readies for the proposed National Missile Defense System, leading skeptics of the missile shield are primed to take over influential positions in Congress.
Gov. Tony Knowles on Thursday signed legislation to create a high-level Alaska National Guard position tasked with preparing the state to house the missiles.
That same day Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont announced he will quit the Republican Party and become an independent aligned with the Democrats, ousting the GOP from control of the Senate.
Democrats will now lead the Senate committees. The shift has led to speculation that the missile shield development, a top priority of President Bush, could be in trouble.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat expected to head the Armed Services Committee, said Friday on CNN that Bush would be forced to rethink his missile defense approach.
Another Democrat, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, who has expressed apprehension over the president's missile plan, is likely to lead the Foreign Relations Committee.
The Washington D.C.-based Council For a Livable World, vocal critics of the missile plan, sent out an e-mail Friday citing media reports that missile defense is now "threatened" or "on life support."
But the council's president, John Isaacs, is not ready to break out the champagne.
"It certainly creates new hurdles, but I would not say that missile defense is dead by any means," Isaacs said in a Friday interview. "Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens might not be appropriations chairman, but he is still in a position to play an important role. And there is still a lot of support for missile defense."
Stevens himself does not foresee a snag. He noted that Congress in 1999 voted in favor of a national missile defense system -- although it did not authorize the necessary funding or set a deadline for deployment.
"That law will be followed," Stevens said Thursday. "And I think the votes are there to see that it is funded when the decision (to deploy) is made by the president."
Bush gave a speech earlier this month that led Stevens to believe that an Alaska-based system remains on the president's agenda for the national missile shield.
The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization is developing a plan based upon having about 100 missiles stationed in the United States to try to knock out an incoming warhead as it travels through space. The defensive missiles would likely be based at Fort Greely near Delta Junction.
The idea is to block an accidental launch or a few missiles launched by terrorists or a "rogue nation."
But critics cite test failures of the system and the potential violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. Opponents argue the world is no safer a place if Russia ends up maintaining more missiles because of the existence of a U.S. shield.
The missile defense system has received the strong endorsement of both the Republican-controlled Alaska Legislature and of Gov. Knowles, a Democrat.
The missile defense system, which would also include a radar in the Aleutians, would probably be staffed by about 300 full-time members of the Alaska National Guard.