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F-22 vote tests Obama's veto threat

Image: F-22 fighter aircraft
The F-22A Raptor fighter aircraft can be seen firing its flares in this file photo from the U.S. Air Force.Ben Bloker / EPA
/ Source: CQ Politics

A showdown vote is coming in the Senate as early as Monday evening over the future of the F-22 fighter jet program.

At issue is an amendment to the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill (S 1390) that would strip out an authorization of $1.8 billion to procure seven new F-22s — money that President Obama did not request but that the Senate Armed Services Committee included.

“It’s going to be a close vote,” said Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, who cosponsored the amendment with John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Republican.

The F-22 vote will be preceded by a series of votes pertaining to hate crimes and one on an amendment by John Thune, R-S.D., that would allow citizens with permits to carry concealed firearms in their home states to carry the weapons to other states that permit concealed weapons.

There is no time limit on the Thune amendment. If the debate runs long, a vote on the F-22 could be delayed until Tuesday, aides said.

Whenever the F-22 vote occurs, it will mark only the beginning of what should be a week of debate, and maybe more, on the defense policy bill. Up for consideration are scores of amendments on a variety of topics, including the size of the Army and military aid to Pakistan.

White House vs. Capitol Hill
The F-22 debate is a high-octane fight between the president and Congress over a high-profile weapon.

Obama has vowed to veto any bill that would keep the program going — the first veto threat of his presidency. He believes that no additional F-22s are needed and that the money can be better used elsewhere in the defense budget.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has hit the same themes. He sharpened the attack on congressional supporters of the F-22 on July 16.

“If we can’t get this right, what on earth can we get right?” Gates told the Economic Club of Chicago. “It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual.”

But the administration faces a phalanx of lawmakers determined to keep the F-22 alive. They argue that the Air Force still has a formal requirement for 243 of the planes — which is 56 more than Obama wants to buy. They say the F-22 is more capable than other fighters, particularly against surface-to-air missiles. Several leaders in the National Guard have promoted use of the F-22 for their missions, and large unions concerned about layoffs have also contended that the program must be continued.

“We’re about to lose 70,000 to 90,000 jobs in the aerospace industry,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., citing industry estimates of the employment impact of terminating the F-22. “We’re about to make an incredible decision.”

Whoever wins Monday’s expected vote will have considerable momentum in a debate that nonetheless will not be complete for months, with the Defense appropriations bill and a potential veto still over the horizon.

Other Major Provisions
The defense authorization bill, of course, contains much more than the F-22 measure. It would authorize $679.8 billion for national security programs in both the Defense and Energy departments — including $129.3 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 3.4 percent pay raise for military personnel.

It also would write new guidelines for military commissions to try detainees and set troop levels for the armed forces.

The most controversial or consequential of the amendments that may be offered on the Senate floor include proposals that would:

  • Bar the transfer of detainees from the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to any facility in the United States or its territories and prohibit the enhancement of any facility in the United States for the purpose of housing such detainees, by James M. Inhofe, R-Okla.;
  • Give the National Guard more clout inside the Pentagon by giving the National Guard chief a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and budgetary power to buy equipment for domestic missions. The measure, by Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., would also hand to governors tactical control of federal troops responding to an emergency inside their state or territory;
  • Authorize U.S. military leaders to add 30,000 soldiers to the Army’s ranks if they deem it necessary, by Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.; and
  • Stipulate that reimbursements to Pakistan for certain military operations can be used only to compensate for assisting with fighting terrorists in Pakistan or for protecting U.S. and allied logistics operations in the region, by Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Levin said he and other senators were working on an amendment to modify the committee bill’s proposed new rules for military commissions for detainees.

He also suggested the possibility of an amendment that would remove the committee’s authorization of $439 million to continue development of an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The White House strongly opposes the second engine program and has said it could veto the bill over a provision that seriously disrupts the overall program.

Also possible, senators said, are Republican amendments that would seek to authorize higher levels of spending for missile defense than the administration has proposed.