THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

GE jet engine survives House

Obama may veto defense legislation; jobs at stake at Lynn facility

A preproduction model of the F-35 joint strike fighter is shown in this photo from Northrop Grumman Corp. General Electric has been working on a backup engine for the jet. A preproduction model of the F-35 joint strike fighter is shown in this photo from Northrop Grumman Corp. General Electric has been working on a backup engine for the jet. (Northrop Grumman via Associated Press)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The US House of Representatives risked a potential veto by President Obama yesterday when it approved a $690 billion defense bill that throws a lifeline to a disputed jet fighter engine with parts that would be built at a General Electric plant in Lynn.

Obama opposes the GE engine — which would be built as a backup engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter — and has said he will veto the entire bill if some provisions related to the program remain in the legislation. He also is threatening a veto over other items in the massive military spending bill, among them a limitation on his authority to reduce nuclear weapons.

The engine program — with hundreds of Bay State jobs at stake — has long been backed by the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

“It shows you that this is what it takes to kill a program at the Pentagon,’’ said Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s kind of ridiculous that there is such an intense battle being waged over something that the Department of Defense says it doesn’t want.’’

Obama’s threat over the backup F-35 engine has attracted attention on Capitol Hill because of a high-profile, high-cost lobbying battle between defense giants over its future. Pratt & Whitney, which is making the jet’s primary engine, has worked to kill GE’s project and nearly succeeded in eliminating it when many cost-conscious GOP freshman in the House voted to cut funding earlier this year.

After the Pentagon terminated the contract last month, GE and its partner, Rolls-Royce, pledged to fund further development themselves.

US Representative John F. Tierney, a Democrat whose district includes Lynn, called GE’s new arrangement of self-financing “a creative approach to funding weapons systems.’’

“With the GE team stepping forward to finance its work on the F-35 alternate engine program, the benefits of competition in contracting can be expected to continue for the coming fiscal year,’’ he said in a statement.

Despite GE’s pledge to pay for continued development, Obama still opposes the measure because it leaves the door open for future taxpayer-supported development and acquisition under certain conditions in the future.

The White House did not comment after yesterday’s vote. The new defense bill — which authorizes GE’s plan to continue paying for development itself — now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where the bill could still be altered to make it palatable to the White House. Even if the Senate ignores the House language, the two chambers will have to reach a compromise — another opportunity for GE and Pratt & Whitney to slug it out. If the final measure does not satisfy the White House, a veto could come later this summer.

Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, approved of the approach in the House bill.

“It’s just common sense to protect the taxpayer investment that’s already been made instead of throwing it away, and this way private money can be spent on continued research, so that if circumstances change we’re not starting from square one,’’ he said.

While GE has Senate allies like Kerry and Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, it also has opponents, among them Republican John McCain of Arizona and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, where Pratt & Whitney is based.

“This is a fight that seems to never end,’’ Lieberman said. “This is a time when we’re struggling to save money in the defense budget, so we shouldn’t be spending money on a program that the Defense Department says is wasteful.’’

The bill passed yesterday ensures that the Department of Defense will store and maintain the backup engine hardware that GE and Rolls-Royce have already built and allows the companies to access it. It also requires the Pentagon to restart competitive bidding if Pratt & Whitney is asked to boost its engine’s power. The White House is threatening a veto over the competitive bidding provision.

GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy said that the provisions in the bill were not the result of lobbying, but of “good policy.’’

“As for the Senate, it’s hard to understand why a provision with obvious benefits and no cost to the government would not be supported. GE and Rolls-Royce are not asking for any money. Access to the . . . development engines will actually save the government money,’’ he said.

In seeking to end the backup engine program, Obama is adhering to a Pentagon determination that it is a waste of money. That wasn’t always the case. After the Pentagon launched the F-35 program in the early 1990s — an ambitious effort to create a new generation of fighter jets — Congress created the alternate engine program in 1996 with approval of the Pentagon.

Even as Presidents George W. Bush in 2007 and then Obama starting in 2009 urged Congress to kill the engine, lawmakers resisted and continued to pump money into it; so far, the engine program has received about $3 billion from the Department of Defense. The winds changed after last fall’s election, which swept dozens of Republicans into Congress, many with a mandate to cut spending and waste.

GE and Pratt & Whitney fought for their allegiance, and Pratt & Whitney succeeded in turning sufficient numbers of House members against the program to excise it from a House budget for this year. A compromise budget for the rest of this year had no money for the program, and the Pentagon ultimately ended the contract. In deciding to pay for the program themselves, General Electric and its allies have asserted that competition will ultimately save the Pentagon money, because having two competing engine options will force down costs.

They also say that it’s a national security issue, because if something goes wrong with the Pratt & Whitney engine, having a backup would prevent the Pentagon from grounding the US air fleet.

“You don’t offer to pony up your own money to run a program for a year unless you really have a lot riding on it,’’ said Peterson, of the taxpayers’ group.

In a statement, Pratt & Whitney claimed victory anew in the fact that the House didn’t try to restore funding, and pledged to continue to reduce costs, which has been one of the major criticisms of the company.

“It is significant that for the second time this year the House voted not to use taxpayer dollars to fund this unnecessary and wasteful system,’’ a company spokeswoman wrote.

Thomas J. Rooney, a Florida Republican who marshaled opposition to the program earlier this year, said he was disappointed that the House kept the provisions allowing GE access to its engines and the trigger for potentially restarting bidding.

But he didn’t launch a new offensive against the program before yesterday’s vote because the primary goal had been achieved earlier: to strip out funding for the engine, and keep it out.

“The answer that we kept getting around to is, we won this fight,’’ he said. “If there is funding in the future, we’ll fight it and we’ll win.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.