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President wins on defense spending

With prodding, Senate halts order for F-22 jets

Many senators favored the F-22 Raptor because of the manufacturing jobs created. Many senators favored the F-22 Raptor because of the manufacturing jobs created. (US Navy via Associated Press)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / July 22, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama scored a major victory yesterday in his push to reform the Pentagon when the Senate voted to halt production of the Air Force’s top fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor - a rare setback for the nation’s powerful defense industry.

The 58-to-40 vote came after an emotional debate about security threats and jobs. It reversed a controversial move last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee to add $1.75 billion over Pentagon objections to buy seven more of the twin-engine stealth jets - on top of 187 already ordered.

A full-court press by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in recent days and the threat of a presidential veto ultimately paid off, persuading some longtime supporters of the program - including Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts - to switch their position and back the president.

The vote marks a major step toward reining in weapons programs that Gates has concluded are ill suited for the nation’s most pressing security challenges, said defense specialists. The F-22 is seen as a test case for whether the new administration can prevail over lawmakers - and their supporters in the defense industry - who advocate weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want partly on the grounds that the programs support manufacturing jobs.

Obama praised the Senate vote, saying the F-22 expansion would have been “an inexcusable waste of money.’’

“Every dollar of waste in our defense budget is a dollar we can’t spend to support our troops, or prepare for future threats, or protect the American people,’’ Obama said. “Our budget is a zero-sum game, and if more money goes to F-22s, it is our troops and citizens who lose.’’

Such arguments ultimately swayed Kerry, whose office told the Globe earlier this month he was prepared to support more F-22s. The F-22 program accounts for hundreds of jobs in Massachusetts, where companies supply key components. In addition, Waltham-based Raytheon Co. builds the plane’s radar and other electronic components.

Kerry said in a statement yesterday that he was convinced by Gates that any job losses in the Bay State would be offset by Pentagon plans to accelerate the production of the next-generation combat jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is designed for air-to-air combat and bombing missions for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The $680 billion defense budget bill has money for 30 F-35s.

He also said he was convinced that the Massachusetts Air National Guard will continue to have the most advanced aircraft.

“I understand the Pentagon’s need to reorganize its resources and I take Secretary Gates at his word that our state will not be harmed in the process,’’ Kerry said.

Other senators from New England, however, had a different view. Those who voted against halting production - an amendment to the defense authorization bill that was proposed by Republican John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Obama’s Republican presidential foe last fall - represent states that would potentially lose thousands of jobs if production of the fighter is halted.

For example, in Maine, where the F-22 engines are manufactured by Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick, both Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted not to strip the F-22 money. In Connecticut, where Pratt & Whitney is headquartered, Independent Joseph Lieberman and Democrat Chris Dodd also backed more F-22s.

But the two senators from New Hampshire, where at least 1,400 jobs at BAE Systems in Nashua depend on the program, split their vote. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen voted to keep the additional funding, while Republican Judd Gregg voted to cut it.

Massachusetts’ other senator, Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, voted in favor of the F-22 funding in committee, but was absent from yesterday’s vote. Rhode Island’s two senators, Democrats Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, voted to cut the money, as did Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders.

Dodd, speaking for many senators who support more F-22s, said during the floor debate yesterday that the livelihoods of thousands are on the line. “This body is about to lay off anywhere from 25,000 people to 90,000 people,’’ he warned.

Contractors estimate that at least 25,000 jobs nationwide are directly tied to the F-22 project, while tens of thousands more in 44 states are supported by the program, which has cost an estimated $65 billion since it was devised during the Cold War for aerial dogfights. Other F-22 backers, including Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, where Lockheed Martin builds the plane, made their arguments on security grounds, contending that the nation needs more F-22s to ensure that it maintains “air superiority’’ against potential enemies such as China that are modernizing their air forces.

But McCain pointed out that the fighter has never flown over Iraq or Afghanistan because it is not suited for the mission.

The Pentagon yesterday was buoyed by the vote, especially because many observers had predicted that F-22 supporters would prevail. Spokesman Geoff Morrell said in an e-mail that Gates “understands that for many members this was a very difficult vote, but he believes that the Pentagon cannot continue with business as usual when it comes to the F-22 or any other program in excess to our needs.’’

Yesterday’s vote also drew widespread praise from budget hawks and reform advocates.

The nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight called it a “landmark vote’’ that “marks the end of business as usual, and the beginning of real reform, in Washington.’’

A “giant step for fiscal sanity,’’ agreed the centrist Taxpayers for Common Sense, which said in a statement that the F-22 vote “affirms the government’s ability to stop unneeded weapons programs even when they are firmly entrenched in the American industrial and congressional base.’’

But the issue is far from settled. The House has voted to authorize $369 million in the next fiscal year to fund components for an additional 12 planes and must be persuaded to drop the measure in a final bill to be voted on by both chambers. House and Senate appropriations panels, where there is still substantial F-22 support, will also have their say in crafting a final defense appropriations package.

“The F-22 battle is a long way from over,’’ said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, a nonpartisan advocacy group that specializes in national security affairs.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com