- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Senate voted to ax new funds for an Air Force fighter jet program Tuesday, bowing to President Obama’s first veto threat and delivering the president a major victory in his first skirmish with Democrats in Congress over spending cuts.

The vote pitted Mr. Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill against powerful Democratic committee chairmen and lawmakers from both parties with home-state interests in building the F-22 Raptor, one of the world’s most high-tech stealth fighter jets. The White House and Pentagon argued strongly that the Air Force did not need more of the planes to counter the threats of the modern world.

Mr. Obama, in remarks at a Rose Garden ceremony scheduled to be devoted to health care reform, hailed the Senate vote just minutes after it occurred.

“At a time when we’re fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, this would have been an inexcusable waste of money,” he said. “Every dollar of waste in our defense budget is a dollar we can’t spend to support our troops or prepare for future threats or protect the American people.”

The F-22 has become a key element of what Mr. Obama says is a plan to rein in spending. He argued that the economy needed a short-term boost from increased federal spending but that the long-term trajectory of spending is unsustainable.

The fighter jet placed high on the White House list of major programs on the chopping block, and it was the first major defense cut to face a challenge on Capitol Hill.

The Senate bucked Mr. Obama’s early opposition to building more of the planes, adding $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s to an annual defense policy bill currently pending on the Senate floor.

The money was stripped out in a 58-40 vote that split both parties. Mr. Obama garnered support from 43 Democrats and 15 Republicans, while 14 Democrats and 26 Republicans opposed cutting the funds.

Mr. Obama found an unlikely ally in his Republican rival from the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who co-sponsored the amendment to remove the F-22 funding from the bill.

The fight over the plane isn’t over, as Mr. Obama must contend with the House’s defense policy bill that also challenged the president’s plan to freeze the F-22 program at 187 planes.

The House legislation, unveiled last week by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the House’s military appropriations subcommittee, tacked on $369 million for parts and commitments to build a dozen F-22s.

The charge in the Senate to build more of the fighter jets was led by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, whose home state also is home to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 plant.

The senator argued that the Pentagon’s view is shortsighted, that plans to transition to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are still speculative, and that the F-22 continues to ensure U.S. air superiority.

The other senator from Georgia, Republican Johnny Isakson, also voted against the amendment. He said cutting the program leaves the United States vulnerable.

I’m extremely disappointed the Senate did not recognize how essential the continued production of this aircraft is to our national security as well as to the many local economies and thousands of workers that will be devastated as a result of these cuts, he said.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, voted to preserve the F-22 funds in his first vote in the chamber since the 91-year-old lawmaker was hospitalized in mid-May.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was particularly vocal in opposing the F-22 funds.

He noted that China will have no aircraft comparable to either the F-22 or F-35 by 2020, while the United States will have nearly 1,100 of the two planes.

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