Dems, White House at odds on F-22 funding

/ Source: The Associated Press

Despite adding money for two programs that the White House has said will result in a veto of the defense spending bill, a key House Democrat said Thursday he's confident the legislation will avoid that fate.

"We'll work it out," John Murtha, head of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, told reporters following a markup of the bill. "In the end, the bill won't be vetoed."

The panel included $369 million as a down payment for a dozen more F-22 fighter jets, and $560 million for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, both actions which the White House has said will lead to a veto.

Murtha's optimism, which comes after a Senate committee also recently added F-22 funding in its version of the bill, sends a signal to the administration that Democrats want to engage in a compromise negotiation on the fighter jet issue, industry analysts say.

Any concession won't mean buying 20 more planes, but perhaps ordering fewer jets over several years to gradually close the production line, said defense consultant Jim McAleese. The outcome must be perceived as in line with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' goal of shifting resources to the Joint Strike Fighter.

Murtha believes lawmakers will be able to persuade the White House to add money to buy spare parts for the F-22 and complete an initial batch of presidential helicopters that President Barack Obama has said are not needed.

Obama has repeatedly threatened to veto a defense spending bill that includes money for the F-22, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., if lawmakers succeed in their effort to buy more planes beyond the 187 requested. Republicans and Democrats representing districts with jobs tied to the program are fighting hard to keep the F-22.

The president also has said he will not sign off on a defense bill that includes money for a second engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter — and would like to see a troubled White House helicopter program scrapped.

Lockheed: 95,000 jobs at risk
Lockheed runs all three programs. The nation's largest defense contractor has said that ending the F-22 and helicopter programs, and delaying the engine for Joint Strike Fighter, puts up to 95,000 jobs at risk.

Many lawmakers have been resisting the spending cuts for that reason.

The House defense panel added $485 million to complete the first batch of as many as five White House helicopters. That's $400 million above the president's request.

The helicopter project, which has a $13 billion price tag and has been delayed by six years, is not expected to meet White House requirements, Gates has said. He has recommended restarting the program in the next budget.

But Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and others contend that terminating the existing program would waste $3.2 billion spent on the helicopters and risk further job loss.

A Lockheed spokesman declined to comment on the budget talks Thursday afternoon. The company on Tuesday said that 600 jobs will be cut at its Owego, N.Y., plant — where the helicopter is built because of the Pentagon's decision to cancel the contract.

Meanwhile, an effort to cut $1.75 billion recently added to the Senate's version of the defense spending bill for more F-22 jets has stalled.

Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee's top Republican, have filed an amendment to cut extra money for seven more planes requested by Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss. The Senate vote on the F-22 amendment is expected next week.

Murtha recently has been tied to a former chief executive of defense contractor, Coherent Systems International Corp., who solicited kickbacks from a subcontractor in the state. The Pennsylvania Democrat's office has said the case isn't about earmarks, but individuals accused of defrauding the government.