- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

President Obama won most of his spending fights with Congress over the Defense Department this year, but it cost several billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to buy legislative peace.

The $636 billion defense spending bill that Mr. Obama signed into law Monday fully funds his plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but Congress added $465 million for an alternate F-35 engine that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need or want.

Mr. Obama had requested $6.8 billion for the F-35 program and didn’t want any of that going to develop the second engine, which has been a priority for some lawmakers. Adding the extra money was a way for Congress to avoid a showdown.

“There’s nothing that rises to the level of a veto for this bill. There are no red lines to be crossed,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Congress also included $2.5 billion for 10 more C-17 transport planes, which the Pentagon says are unnecessary, but which lawmakers said will help maintain the Air Force’s strategic-airlift capabilities.

Still, the bill has clear victories for Mr. Obama: It ramps down funding for a new presidential helicopter, which Mr. Obama canceled earlier this year and gives in to his demand that the F-22 Raptor plane be ended.

Mr. Obama signed the bill in private, and the public was notified through a statement from the White House press secretary.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who voted against the bill, said he wished the president had vetoed it because of the more than 1,700 pork-barrel spending projects that cost a total of $4.2 billion.

“The president promised me he would veto bills, he wouldn’t stand for any more of this pork-barrel spending,” said Mr. McCain, who ran against Mr. Obama in last year’s campaign, but has since been looking for areas to team up with the president.

Mr. McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is against the extra F-35 engine.

The F-35 is expected to be an affordable workhorse strike aircraft for the Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as U.S. allies.

The president this summer had threatened to veto the spending bill if Congress had siphoned off F-35 money to pay for continuing the second engine program. The administration had said that would disrupt the main F-35 program.

Instead of cutting, Congress added the $465 million.

“The conferees funded the engine without cutting funds from the existing program/request — therefore, not ‘disrupting’ the program,” a House aide said.

Mr. Morrell at the Pentagon said that the compromise works, but that officials will have to examine where the $465 million came from.

“I think they’ve done this in a way that, even though we have no interest in pursuing a second engine and do not believe it’s needed, they’ve been able to give it to us without disrupting the program,” Mr. Morrell said.

When Mr. Obama submitted his budget this year, he listed dozens of programs he wanted trimmed or eliminated; the C-17, the alternate F-35 engine, the F-22 and the presidential helicopter were all on the list.

The president said Congress needed to prove it could rein in spending in tough times. But lawmakers have always zealously guarded their oversight and spending duties and say that although the administration can make recommendations, final decisions rest with Congress.

This year’s compromises don’t mean the C-17 and F-35 alternate engine are safe in next year’s budget, which Mr. Obama will send to Congress in less than two months.

“I think there is a desire to finally deal with the issue, the C-17 question, in the coming budget, but for now, another 10 is something we can live with,” Mr. Morrell said.

General Electric and Rolls-Royce, which have teamed up for the contract for the second F-35 engine, known as the F136, said they entered fiscal 2010 with engine development about 70 percent complete and said the additional $465 million will take them to about 85 percent complete.

Spokesman Rick Kennedy at GE said they have already been able to show that the competition is keeping overall costs low. They put forward a fixed-price contract earlier this year, and Mr. Kennedy said Pratt & Whitney, the contractor for the main F-35 engine program, came in soon afterward with savings on their cost-plus contract.

Erin Dick, spokeswoman for Pratt & Whitney, said they still think their engine, known as the F135, meets the F-35’s needs and that an alternate engine “is neither required nor affordable.” She said their engine has met “numerous milestones” in development and testing.

“Pratt & Whitney’s F135 is the safest, most reliable, most cost-effective solution for the F-35, and we strongly support the administration’s position,” she said.

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