The Senate has again gone along with Obama administration efforts to change the way the Pentagon buys weapons, voting Thursday to eliminate spending on a jet engine program the defense secretary says is superfluous.
The vote to eliminate $439 million from a defense budget bill for continued development of a backup engine for the F-35 next-generation fighter plane came just two days after the Senate stripped $1.75 billion from the bill to produce more F-22 fighters.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made the shutdown of the F-35 second engine program and new F-22 production key elements of his drive to end outdated or unneeded programs and shift money to weapons systems more attuned to today's unconventional wars.
The White House has said that President Barack Obama would issue what would be the first veto of his presidency if the $680 billion defense bill contained money for either of those programs.
In another vote, senators unanimously backed a measure to remove the red tape that results in thousands of ballots filled out by military personnel stationed overseas being lost or uncounted.
Senators were also taking up a measure, in response to a recent U.S.-Russian effort to further reduce their nuclear arsenals, that would deny money for implementing a nuclear treaty if it is linked to restrictions on U.S. missile defense programs.
The debate over the second F-35 engine has gone on for more than a decade. The Pentagon gave the contract for the engine to United Technologies Corp.'s subsidiary Pratt & Whitney. But lawmakers, some with jobs in their states at stake, have continued to push for development of a backup engine built by General Electric Company and Rolls Royce. Some $2.5 billion has already been spent on the GE engine.
Both the F-22 and the F-35 are being built by the Lockheed Martin Corp.
On Tuesday Gates wrote a letter to Senate leaders saying that "further expenditures on a second engine are unnecessary and will likely impede the progress of the overall F-35 program."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the main sponsor of the amendment taking out the second engine money, argued that GE and its supporters were "trying to achieve through legislation what they could not achieve through competition." He estimated it would cost some $6 billion to complete development of the engine, and would result over the next five years in a reduced capacity to build 53 F-35s.
The Pentagon in the coming decades plans to buy about 2,400 of the 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. Versions would also be produced for the Navy and Marine Corps as well as the Air Force, and about 600 would be built for foreign allies.
The House version of the defense bill contains more than $300 million for downpayments for new F-22s and $600 million for the alternate F-35 engine. Those differences will need to be worked out in negotiations.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., arguing for the second GE engine, said the F-35 was "one of the largest acquisition programs ever undertaken by the Department of Defense" and that Congress has repeatedly come down on the side of competition in buys of this size.
An amendment by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., that would have maintained the second engine money without offsetting that with a reduction in Marine Corps helicopters was defeated 59-38.
Bayh cited a recent Government Accountability Office report concluding that a sole-source program, while cheaper in the short run, could cost longer in the long run while sacrificing such nonfinancial benefits as reliability and improved industrial base stability.
The military vote amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. It would require that states provide military and other overseas voters with ballots at least 45 days ahead of an election. It would also demand that states make registration and absentee ballot request forms available on the Internet and bar states from rejecting military ballots for lack of a notary signature.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, added a provision ensuring that troops and their families have voter registration assistance and timely access to blank absentee ballots.