- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

President Obama had his biggest spending cuts win Thursday, going toe-to-toe with Congress’s biggest defense spenders and forcing them to stop funding an Air Force fighter jet the Pentagon says it doesn’t need.

But the White House remained cautious about claiming victory as it vets more than 1,000 pork-projects in the $636 billion spending bill for the Pentagon.

The administration had called the battle over the F-22 Raptor the first test of whether Mr. Obama can cajole Congress into controlling spending, and the president’s threat to veto any bill that funded the jet was decisive in forcing Democrats on Thursday to remove $369 million that had been designed to keep the jet in production.

Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who oversees defense spending and who just two weeks ago predicted Mr. Obama would back down, conceded defeat on the House floor, saying the “political climate has changed substantially” for appropriators. He said Mr. Obama’s threatened veto was insurmountable.

“The problem is we’d need 292 votes in the House. The president is hard over on this issue. We’d need [67] votes in the Senate. And there’s no chance of us getting that kind of vote,” he said.

The White House declared the battle over the F-22 the first actual test of whether Mr. Obama can persuade Congress to rein in runaway spending. Thursday’s vote removed $369 million that had been designated to keep the jet in production.

Mr. Obama is trying to avoid the fate of the previous administration.

Polls show Republicans’ fiscal responsibility brand identity collapsed as they and President George W. Bush allowed spending to grow dramatically, punctuated with embarrassing expenses such as the eventually stopped “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska.

Recent polling suggests Democrats are now suffering the same slide. A new Wall Street Journal survey says Republicans now lead by nine percentage points when Americans are asked who would do a better job of handling the federal deficit - a giant shift from the 16-point advantage Democrats held in 2007.

After voting to cut the F-22 funding, the House approved the overall $636.6 billion fiscal 2010 defense spending bill, but not before turning back each of nearly a dozen attempts to cut pork-barrel programs from the 1,102 earmark projects in the bill.

“As the president has said, he will veto the final bill if it includes certain unnecessary military acquisitions,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “The president has asked for a review of the House bill, including the earmarks that were included in it.”

The White House did note that earmarks are down from previous years.

“We knew from the start that changing the old ways of Washington would not happen overnight but remain committed to rigorous accountability and transparency and a return to fiscal discipline,” Mr. Vietor said.

One potential fight could be brewing over funding for an alternative engine for the F-35. The House bill included money for a second engine program, but the administration has said Mr. Obama would consider vetoing any bill that “would seriously disrupt the F-35 program.”

The F-35 is the plane the administration says will supersede the need for more F-22s.

Mr. Obama wants the F-22 production line to ramp down in 2011 with 187 planes built. The plane’s backers - some of them with manufacturing plants in their home districts - say the bare minimum needed to guarantee Americans can control airspace in combat is at least 243, and may be well more than 300.

They fought to keep the production line open by building an additional 12 F-22s in 2011.

“We may find ourselves on the wrong side of history if we do not stand up for the F-22,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.

The House spending bill will have to be matched up with the Senate version, which has not yet been written. But the Senate voted to block F-22 funding on a different defense bill last week, putting both chambers on record in support of Mr. Obama.

The House vote was 269-165 to strip the money, with 243 Democrats and 26 Republicans voting to stop building new planes and 13 Democrats and 152 Republicans voting to preserve it.

The White House had issued repeated veto threats over the F-22 and in the run-up to the first test vote in the Senate earlier this month Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates declared the issue was a test of whether any major defense program could be cut.

“If we can’t get this right, what on earth can we get right?” Mr. Gates said in a speech in Chicago.

Sensing the danger of the dropping polls, Mr. Obama has taken pains to say that while he’s boosted spending during the economic downturn, in the longer run he’ll work to control the federal budget. The F-22 cut was a key part of his defense cuts he and Mr. Gates proposed earlier this year.

Now the earmark issue looms for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Murtha and other lawmakers defended the projects included in the bill, saying Congress has the power to decide on spending and arguing former earmarks such as the unmanned aerial vehicle have become successful and critical tools the military now relies on.

Congress has the power of the purse and we can’t give it away because it’s in the Constitution,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat.

But opponents said the programs should be put through the regular bidding process to make sure the contracts are done properly and the companies can actual deliver the products.

“We bleed off money that should be going to our military,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.