- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill new funds for a major Air Force fighter jet program, 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 sophisticated 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 health care event, hailed the 58-40 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.”

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 fact that the F-22 program is no longer needed beyond where it stands today … and that it is simply no longer affordable, cannot be disputed,” Mr. McCain said during floor debate.

The twin-engine F-22 Raptor has become a key battle in what Mr. Obama says is a plan to rein in dysfunctional federal defense-contracting practices. It placed high on the White House list of major programs on the chopping block, and it was the first major defense cut challenged on Capitol Hill.

Ignoring Mr. Obama’s recommendation, the Senate bill originally included some $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s in the annual defense-authorization bill.

The underlying $680 billion bill, which sets policy for military spending, includes about $130 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also has developed into a magnet for partisan and intraparty conflict, including an amendment supported by Mr. Obama that would expand federal hate-crime laws to include offenses based on bias against gay and transgendered people.

The elimination of the F-22 funding spares Mr. Obama the political dilemma of having to veto a bill that contains the hate-crime legislation sought by Democrats and gay activist groups for more than a decade.

The F-22 vote split both parties. Mr. Obama garnered support from 43 Democrats and 15 Republicans, while 14 Democrats and 26 Republicans opposed cutting the funds.

The fight over the plane isn’t over, as Mr. Obama must contend with a House’s defense bill that also challenged the president’s plan to cap the F-22 construction 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 Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, whose home state of Georgia also is home to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 plant. Shares of the Bethesda-based aerospace firm fell Tuesday by $6.98 - 8.5 percent - to $75.13.

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.

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

The F-22 is the Air Force’s mainstay for air-to-air combat. The Pentagon has emphasized the need for the single-engine F-35s, which are primarily deployed to attack ground targets and would replace the F-16 and the A-10 aircraft.

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