WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to terminate further production of the U.S. Air Force's topline F-22 fighter jets, giving President Barack Obama a major spending victory and siding with the Pentagon's desire for smaller jets better suited to 21st-century wars.
F-22 supporters complained the action would be a blow to long-term national defense — and cost thousands of jobs in the middle of the recession.
The 58-40 vote to cut the money from a $680 billion defense bill was a hard-fought victory for Obama, who had threatened to veto defense spending legislation if it included funds for more F-22s. Wavering lawmakers heard repeatedly from Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior administration officials.
While Tuesday's vote gives momentum to the anti-F-22 side, a final decision must wait for the House and Senate to reach a compromise on their differing defense bills. The House last month approved its version of the defense bill with a $369 million down payment for 12 F-22 fighters.
Obama told reporters at the White House the Senate's decision will "better protect our troops." He said he rejected the notion that the country has to "waste billions of taxpayers dollars" on outdated defense projects.
The vote was "a signal that we are not going to continue to build weapons systems with cost overruns which outlive their requirements for defending this nation," declared Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who joined Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin in arguing for cutting off production.
The $1.75 billion was aimed at adding seven F-22s to the current plan to deploy 187 of the twin-engine stealth planes. Some of those 187 are still in the pipeline and will be completed.
On the other side, supporters of the program insisted the F-22 is important to U.S. security interests — pointing out that China and Russia are developing planes that can compete with it — and needed to protect aerospace jobs in a bad economy.
"The Chinese are really anxiously awaiting this vote," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia whose state would be one of the hardest hit by the shutdown of F-22 production.
Gates, first appointed by President George W. Bush, wants to shift military spending to programs more attuned to today's unconventional wars. The F-22, designed for midair combat, has been irrelevant to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore unused there.
Gates and other Pentagon officials want to put more emphasis on the next-generation F-35 Lightning, a single-engine jet that would be used primarily to attack targets on the ground and would replace the F-16 and the Air Force's aging fleet of A-10s. The Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35s, which are currently being produced in small numbers for testing purposes. Versions of that plane, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, are also being built for the Navy and Marine Corps, another plus for supporters.
The defense bill has money to build 30 F-35s.
"The president really needed to win this vote," said Levin, a Democrat, not only on the merits of the planes but "in terms of changing the way we do business in Washington."
"I reject the notion that we have to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated and unnecessary defense projects to keep this nation secure," Obama said after the vote.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, added that the F-35 is designed to supplement, not replace, the F-22, "the "NASCAR racer of this air dominance team." Supporters of the F-22 have put the number needed at anywhere from 250 to 380.
According to Lockheed Martin, which makes the plane 25,000 people are directly employed in building the F-22, and 70,000 more have indirect links, particularly in Georgia, Texas and California.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is Obama's ally on overhaul of health care, argued passionately for continued F-22 production. Save the F-22, said Dodd, and you save the jobs — including about 3,000 at United Technologies based in his home state.
To cancel the program would be “a great danger to the nation — not to mention to these jobs which are critically important to our nation’s future,” he said.
The Senate defense bill authorizes $550 billion for defense programs and $130 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for anti-terrorist operations.
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