- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The Democrat-controlled Congress is challenging President Obamas resolve to cut an Air Force fighter plane program - a move the White House calls the first major test of its efforts to curb runaway spending and slash unneeded projects.

Mr. Obama and his spending-cut allies on Capitol Hill are going head-to-head with powerful Democratic committee chairmen and lawmakers from both parties with home-state interests in building the F-22 Raptor who are trying to add money for the fighter plane over the objections of the president and the Pentagon.

“The Pentagon doesn’t want this plane; the Pentagon doesn’t think we need this plane,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. He told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama will follow through on his threat to veto any bill that restores money for the fighter, and said the White House considers this battle to be the first test of Mr. Obama’s vow to begin holding the line on spending.

Those words were echoed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates who, in a speech Thursday, said the administration views the F-22 as a “red line.”

“If we can’t get this right, what on earth can we get right?” Mr. Gates said in a speech Thursday night to the Economic Club of Chicago. “It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual. The president has drawn that line. And that red line with regard to a veto is real.”

Mr. Obama’s budget froze the F-22 program at 187 planes, but lawmakers in both the House and Senate have added money back in for more.

In the House’s defense spending bill, unveiled Thursday, Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the House’s military spending subcommittee, added back $369 million for a dozen F-22s. Meanwhile, a cadre of senators led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, has tacked back on $1.75 billion for the F-22 in a defense bill pending on the Senate floor.

Now Mr. Obama’s congressional allies are trying to cut that money back out.

“These are difficult and terrible economic times for America. We cannot afford business as usual. We cannot afford to continue to purchase weapons systems that are not absolutely vital to this nation’s security,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who has teamed with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, to try to cut the additional funding.

“Defending this nation and expenditures of the taxpayers’ dollars for its defense should not be based on jobs,” Mr. McCain said.

The Pentagon has said 187 F-22s are enough, but Mr. Chambliss and his allies say the Pentagon’s view is short-sighted. They argue that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the plane to which the Pentagon wants to transition, is still a speculative venture and that there’s a role for the F-22.

“A number of us disagree with the number of 187 as being the top line for the F-22,” Mr. Chambliss said. “The F-35 was designed to operate after F-22s secure the airspace and does not have the inherent altitude and speed advantages to survive every time against peers with counter-electronic measures.”

The F-22 contract is held by defense contractor Lockheed Martin and is being assembled at a plant in Marietta, Ga.

Other senators said the issue of jobs goes beyond just the F-22. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said stopping the F-22 could lead to “loss of the industrial base that is absolutely critical to maintaining the ability to produce the superior engines that we historically have been able to produce at the Pratt & Whitney Division of United Technologies, a corporation in my home state.”

Mr. McCain and Mr. Levin had hoped for a vote on their amendment this week, but Democratic leaders instead decided to force a debate on adding hate-crimes language to the defense bill. That has put the F-22 fight off to next week, and could complicate the vote on the bill. It’s also unclear what kind of coalition might emerge from opponents of F-22 spending and opponents of the hate-crimes language.

Mr. Levin said it’s uncertain whether there are enough votes to cut the plane spending from the bill, but he said Mr. Obama’s veto threat and strong letters from the Pentagon opposing funding for the plane have helped.

In the House, Mr. Murtha also tacked back on to his spending bill $560 million for an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter - another move the White House has said would draw a presidential veto.

He doubted the White House would end up vetoing the bill.

“We’ll work it out,” Mr. Murtha said, according to the Associated Press. “In the end, the bill won’t be vetoed.”

Mr. Obama has promised to try to rein in spending, arguing that the economy needed a short-term boost but the trajectory of spending over the long haul is unsustainable. He has submitted a list of program cuts to lawmakers, and the F-22 is the first major program to come to a head.

The president this week issued a threat to veto a bill that restores money for the plane, and his administration does not appear to be setting up a compromise.

In assessing the risks the United States is likely to face, Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, pointed to China, which he said will have no aircraft comparable to either the F-22 or F-35 by 2020, while the U.S. will have nearly 1,100 of the two planes.

Bill Gertz contributed to this article.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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