- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 22, 2009

House and Senate lawmakers are going eyeball to eyeball with the Obama administration over a new defense spending bill, risking a veto recommendation from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as they fight to keep alive two big-ticket procurement programs he wants to kill.

Two programs in the House version of the fiscal year 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill attracted a veto threat last week from Mr. Gates: the new presidential helicopter; and the alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF.

The $2.5 billion alternate engine, being produced at several factories across the United States by Evendale, Ohio-based GE Aviation and Britain-based Rolls Royce, “is unnecessary, and could disrupt the overall JSF program,” Mr. Gates wrote.

In his letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, and ranking Republican C.W. Bill Young of Florida, Mr. Gates wrote: “If the final bill presented to the President would seriously disrupt the JSF program, I would recommend that he veto the bill.”

One serious disruption Mr. Gates could be referring to is the fact that the House bill pays for the alternate engine, designated F-136, by cutting funds allocated to the production of the plane itself, reducing the number the military can afford.

Vetoing a defense appropriations bill is considered a “nuclear option” by most observers, because without it, the administration would lack legal authority to spend money to sustain the nation’s military. This year’s bill would be even more controversial to stymie because, for the first time since 2001, it provides cash for troops fighting overseas who were previously funded by special supplemental appropriations.

The last president to veto a defense appropriations bill was Jimmy Carter in 1978.

President Obama successfully employed a veto threat earlier this year to get House lawmakers to strip out additional F-22 fighters they ordered the Pentagon to buy in an earlier version of the bill.

But, despite Mr. Gates’ warnings, the version of the fiscal year 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill eventually passed by the House provided $485 million for the VH-71 presidential helicopter and $560 million for the F-136, funding the alternate engine’s development by cutting into the $6 billion budget for the production of the JSF aircraft itself.

The Senate-passed version didn’t include money for the helicopter or the additional engine, although Senate appropriators said they would be open to adding funds for the F-136 in the final bill, which must now be hashed out in a House-Senate conference.

Mr. Gates and other officials have been trying to kill the alternative engine project for three years, saying it is not needed for the JSF, because work on the main engine, the F-135 being built by Pratt and Whitney, is proceeding well, and resources are more urgently needed elsewhere.

Defenders of the F-136 say the alternate engine will eventually pay for itself if competition drives prices down. But Laura Peterson of the nonpartisan spending watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense said such predictions don’t properly account for “the high price of maintaining two separate production lines, supply chains and management teams.”

Studies projecting savings from the alternate engine program were “inconclusive,” she told The Washington Times. “There is no guarantee any of these savings will be realized.”

Defenders also say a second engine would have other benefits, reducing the risks inherent in relying on a single supplier.

“There are good arguments” for the F-136, said Winslow Wheeler, a three-decade veteran of Capitol Hill now with the independent research group Center for Defense Information.

Mr. Wheeler, a longtime critic of the troubled F-35 procurement, added, “It would be a better idea if we had a decent plane to put it in.”

The F-136 program is not technically an earmark or pet project of a legislator, because it was added by the whole defense appropriations subcommittee, not at the request of one or two members. But critics say many of the same issues that have stoked concern about earmarking apply to several such “committee additions to the bill” - the engine and the helicopter, and other unrequested spending that has not attracted veto threats, such as additional Boeing C-17 cargo planes.

The Senate version of the bill includes $2.5 billion to add another 10 of the planes to the military’s 205-strong fleet, although officials have said they are not needed.

Mr. Wheeler said that, in his experience, lawmakers did not make decisions to keep such programs alive “based on research and analysis of the cost history. It is all about where it is built and who is representing that matter to the appropriators.”

He said campaign contributions by manufacturers also played a part.

“I’ve been in the room” when that quid pro quo was articulated by senior congressional staff, he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wheeler predicted that the F-136’s defenders could win the day in negotiations over the final appropriations bill in the House-Senate conference.

“The language that Gates used [in his veto threat] was not as tough” as on the F-22 or the helicopter, he said, characterizing it as “an invitation to do a deal.” He added that a recent compromise on another defense bill had opened the door to keeping the program alive for a fourth year.

The defense authorization bill - a separate piece of legislation already passed in its combined form by the House and now awaiting only final passage by the Senate - contains provisions that fund the alternate engine but will avoid a veto, lawmakers say.

“Hopefully any veto threat … will not apply to what we did in the conference report” on the authorization bill, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, told reporters earlier this month after House and Senate legislators agreed the final combined version.

A congressional staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Times that lawmakers had recommended that money be diverted from “a number of small funding sources, none of which has anything to do with the JSF program,” to fund the alternate engine.

Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell told The Times that no decision had yet been made about whether the bill seriously disrupted the JSF program and whether it would therefore attract a veto recommendation from Mr. Gates. He said such a decision was expected “soon.”

Although the authorization bill is supposed to be a policy law, and its funding provisions are only advisory, Ms. Peterson said the fact that it included provisions instructing the administration to continue funding the alternate engine “shows that there is widespread congressional support for spending the money.”

“It strengthens the hand” of those lawmakers fighting to keep the money in the appropriations bill, she said.

Mr. Wheeler said if the agreement in the authorization bill successfully avoided a veto, it would “lay out a path” for appropriators to follow. He called the authorization bill one of several “straws in the wind,” suggesting that, if lawmakers could find the money for the alternate engine without cutting JSF production funds, “they could get a deal” that would keep the project funded.

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