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Obama’s Veto Threat Has Yet to Down the F-22

The Senate appears ready to buck the White House this week on one of President Barack Obama’s top national security policies — cutting back on pricey weapons systems.

The Obama administration wants to end production of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet and did not seek any money for the plane in its fiscal 2010 Pentagon budget.

But the Senate is poised to pass an annual Defense authorization bill that would spend $1.75 billion on seven more of the fighters, which are manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

Pentagon leaders say the Cold War-era planes are no longer needed and that the money could be better spent on a new generation of cheaper weapons. The White House has said it would veto the bill if it contains any more spending on the aircraft.

“If we can’t get this right, what on earth can we get right?— Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. “It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual.—

But for lawmakers business as usual for the F-22 means tens of thousands of aircraft production jobs spread across more than 40 states. With the economy remaining sluggish, Members see continued F-22 production as a way to protect those jobs in their districts and states.

“This has become the best example of Senators putting parochial interests over national security interests,— said Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), who along with Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has introduced an amendment that will be voted on this week to cut all F-22 funding from the bill.

Levin said last week, “We’re not sure how many votes each side has. It’s anybody’s guess at this point. The vote is going to be close, no question about it.—

Congressional aides and defense experts believe the additional money will remain in place. They note House Defense appropriators backed funding the F-22 in their annual spending bill last week and that the Senate Armed Services Committee refused to cut the funds.

The Senate vote won’t be decided along partisan lines, but economic ones, defense observers say.

Liberal Democratic Senators from California, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, who often oppose large weapons programs, seem more likely to side with conservatives, such as Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, than the Democratic administration.

Isakson, whose state is home to a large F-22 manufacturing plant, insists the need for more funding is based on national security. “The federal government must tighten its belt in these tough economic times just as Americans have to do, but we must also maintain a strong national defense in order to protect our country,— he said.

But Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Armed Services member, said lawmakers should take the advice of miliary leaders and cut the funding. “They have made a valid case against funding more planes and we should honor that,— Nelson said.

Labor unions including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the United Steelworkers also want to build more F-22s.

“Both sides are working furiously to educate Members who are on the fence about F-22 funding. Currently, about a dozen Republican Senators are undecided while about a half-dozen firmly support the amendment. There is significant support on the Democratic side although that is, of course, not universal,— said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation.

Even if the Levin-McCain amendment is adopted, lawmakers still could add money for the plane during conference with the House. Earlier this year, the House adopted a Defense authorization bill that provided hundreds of millions of dollars for the procurement of parts needed to build 12 more F-22s.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, supported adding $369 million in F-22 funding to the annual defense spending bill his subpanel marked up last week and said he expects the money to stay in place.

Murtha said that he’s not taking the administration’s veto threat seriously. “The president has a lot of things on his plate,— he said. “In the end he won’t veto the bill.—