Neither the Bush nor Obama administration has wanted to build a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and it’s one of the biggest spending cuts on the list President Obama submitted to Congress this year — a list Republicans have been begging Democrats to allow votes.
But when the engine came up for a floor vote in the House last month - the first to see a vote out of the nearly 53 cuts Mr. Obama proposed - Republicans led the successful fight to preserve the $485 million in spending.
The F-35 engine is shaping up as a key test of whether, in the midst of record debt and projected near-record deficits, Congress and the White House can agree on any sizable spending cuts this year.
The fight pits Congress against the White House, with the privileged status of defense spending and lawmakers own districts’ interests on the line.
“It’s a great case study, and there are sincere people on both sides of the issue. Others, obviously, are voting for their districts, which is what we expect Congress to do,” said Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who is trying to create a left-right coalition to ax the program.
So far, the more successful left-right coalition is on the other side.
The 231-193 vote saw 116 Republicans and 115 Democrats join to preserve the funding, including Republicans’ top House leadership. Just 136 Democrats and 57 Republicans voted to cut the money, while another three Democrats voted present.
That means Mr. Obama is batting 0-for-1 in winning his proposed spending cuts, and the GOP is a key reason.
Republicans argue the problem isn’t the 0 in that equation, it’s the 1: They want Democrats to allow votes on the dozens of other cuts Mr. Obama proposed.
“Though there was bipartisan disagreement on the only measure that Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has allowed the House to consider, President Obama and his party operate under the flawed notion that because the first spending cut failed to achieve majority support, any effort to move the remaining 70 spending cuts should be abandoned,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. “That’s hogwash. In fact, that’s how the culture of spending in Washington lives, breathes and grows, and the American people have had enough of it.”
Mr. Dayspring said Mr. Cantor and fellow Republicans have tried to bring $85 billion in potential spending cuts to the floor, and each time they’ve been blocked.
The F-35 is slated to be the country’s workhorse fighter aircraft for decades, and relies on an engine produced by Pratt & Whitney. But a 1990s directive from Congress required an alternate engine to be produced as well, so the F-35 didn’t rely on a single supplier.
In 2006, the Bush administration said the Pratt & Whitney engine was doing so well that the second engine had become a waste, and the Pentagon proposed cutting the program. Congress approved the money anyway, and it’s been an annual battle ever since.
General Electric and Rolls-Royce have combined to produce the second engine, at a cost of $2.4 billion so far. The companies have given lawmakers plenty of arguments to keep the program alive, including offering fixed-price contracts that have proved alluring to a Congress trying to reform Defense Department procurement.
Supporters also note that the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, says competition could save enough money to make the extra engine worthwhile.
The administration minces no words in making clear how serious it sees this test. Mr. Obama has indicated that he would veto a defense policy bill that includes the extra engine, even if that bill includes his long-sought reversal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving in the military.
Geoff Morrell, press secretary at the Pentagon and spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said last year they left Congress wiggle room and lawmakers added $465 million in funding for the second engine. This year, that’s changed.
“This is make-or-break as far as he is concerned. He will go to the mat in order to ensure there is no more funding for a program that we see no more utility in,” Mr. Morrell said. “We have been forced, despite our protestations, to eat roughly half a billion dollars a year in funding for the extra engine for the last few years, and we simply can no longer afford to do that.”
Spending has emerged as a major issue over the past few years, but has risen to new levels as the economy turned sour under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.
The call for cuts has grown particularly loud in recent weeks. Over the weekend, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, suggested that he would be willing to dip into the stimulus funds to pay for some new programs.
Republicans say they’ve learned the lessons of overspending during Mr. Bush’s tenure and want to pressure Mr. Obama to join them in cutting the budget.
Mr. Cantor and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, sent letters to Mr. Obama twice this year begging him to submit his list of 53 cuts and 30 reductions to Congress under budget rules for rescissions.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor said they would work to round up the one-fifth of members it would take under current budget rules to force House floor votes on the cuts and reductions.
Previous presidents made use of rescission authority. President Clinton won $3.6 billion in savings from 111 cuts, President George H.W. Bush won $2.4 billion from 34 cuts and President Reagan got Congress to cut 214 programs for $15.7 billion in savings.
But President George W. Bush never made use of the authority, and Mr. Obama has not done so either.
Last week, Peter Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director, said the administration doesn’t think the Democrat-controlled Congress would take cuts seriously.
“It just comes down to a question of whether it’s a fruitless exercise because you have a very low probability of success in the current environment,” Mr. Orszag said. “We would rather put our effort, which we are doing, into the structural change of getting that authority, rather than sending up a package under the existing authority, which is much more limited, that would go nowhere.”
Mr. Obama, like Mr. Bush before him, has called for Congress to adopt new rules that would force Congress to act on spending-cut proposals. But that proposal has attracted just 20 co-sponsors in the House, eight in the Senate, and has earned opposition from some key lawmakers.
That leaves congressional Republicans, congressional Democrats and Mr. Obama in a three-way standoff - the legislative version of the showdown between Clint Eastwood and two other gunslingers at the end of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Each side is looking for another to blink, with the result that spending cuts are proving tough to secure.
Michael Steel, spokesman for Mr. Boehner, says there’s a better movie analogy: “300,” the story of doomed Greek forces holding off invading hordes.
“We’re the Spartans trying to hold Thermopylae. The White House is the other Greeks - they say the right things but they aren’t actually very helpful. And the congressional Democrats are the Persian horde, desperately trying to cram more wasteful spending through the gap,” he said.
For now, though, the F-35 vote remains the only public test, and the vote breakdown showed just how difficult it is to cut big programs.
All 18 of Ohio’s representatives, from both parties, supported the $485 million in spending. The alternate engine is being developed in part at GE Aviation, based in Cincinnati.
Among Blue Dogs, the coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, the vote was only marginally in favor of cutting. And even among progressives, who are generally seen as skeptical of big defense budgets, the vote was split with about three-fifths in favor of the cut and two-fifths opposed.
Many Democratic offices seemed reluctant to talk about their votes on the F-35 engine.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and former presidential candidate who is on record calling for deep defense cuts and criticizing Pentagon waste, voted to preserve the spending. A spokesman didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment.
Neither did spokesmen for Reps. Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey, California Democrats who both voted “present” rather than take a stand on the amendment.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, also voted present. Her spokesman said she saw good arguments on either side of the debate, and voted present because she knew her vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome.