By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- In a key victory for President Obama's effort to reform the Pentagon budget, the Senate this afternoon approved an amendment to halt production of the next-generation F-22 fighter jet .
The 58-40 vote in the full Senate reversed a vote in the Armed Services Committee last month that would have added $1.75 billion to the defense budget next fiscal year to force the Air Force buy seven more of the air-to-air fighters. The Pentagon maintains it needs the money for higher priorities.
A full court press by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in recent days and a threat of a presidential veto clearly paid off, persuading some long-time supporters of the program, including Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, to switch their position and back the president.
Kerry issued a statement this afternoon to explain his change of heart.
“Months ago, the Massachusetts Air National Guard conveyed to me their concerns that their aging aircraft will compromise their ability to complete their mission in the future and I've also had a longstanding concern about our industrial capacity in Massachusetts in the event that funding for important technologies is interrupted," Kerry said.
“I called Secretary Gates last week and yesterday we had a productive discussion in which he assured me of three key and persuasive facts: that the Pentagon’s shift in resources and priorities will have no adverse affects on Massachusetts workers whose skills are transferable from the F-22 to the F-35, that there will be no shortage of planes or equipment for the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s mission, and in fact that production of the F-35 could generate additional jobs for our experienced workforce," he added.
"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. I was also persuaded by the arguments made by the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the former Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that additional F-22 aircraft are unnecessary. For those reasons, I decided to support the Levin Amendment, and will remain vigilant in ensuring the needs of the Massachusetts Air National Guard are always met in policy planning.”
In remarks in the Rose Garden, Obama said he was grateful for the Senate vote, saying the F-22 expansion would have been "an inexcusable waste of money."
The budget is a "zero-sum game," he said, so money for the F-22 would have meant less money for the troops. He said he rejects the notion that the nation has to waste billions of dollars on outdated defense programs to protect the country. (His full remarks are below.)
Senators from New England, however, were decidedly split. Those who voted against the amendment -- proposed by Obama's former GOP presidential rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona -- represent states that would potentially lose the most jobs if the next-generation stealth fighter is halted at 187 planes.
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 for the money. So did both senators from Connecticut -- Independent Joseph I. Lieberman and Democrat Christopher Dodd -- where Pratt & Whitney is headquartered.
Dodd spoke in defense of the program, saying that thousands of jobs are at risk. Contractors estimate that at least 25,000 jobs nationwide, including some in Massachusetts, are directly tied to the F-22 project.
UPDATE: Also voting for the amendment to slash funding were Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Overall, 42 Democrats, 15 Republicans, and 1 independent voted for the amendment.
Also opposing the amendment was Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Overall, 14 Democrats, 25 Republicans, and 1 independent voted to preserve the funding.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, absent while undergoing treatment for brain cancer, did not vote.
During the floor debate, McCain pointed out that the fighter has never flown over Iraq or Afghanistan because it is not suited for the mission. The F-22 was originally designed for aerial dogfights with Soviet fighters during the Cold War.
The Pentagon was buoyed by the passage of the amendment, which many observers predicted just days ago was headed for defeat.
Spokesman Geoff Morrell said in an email 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."
Morrell added: "Today's vote is an important step in that direction and the Secretary looks forward to working closely with lawmakers as President Obama's budget is debated in the coming months."
The issue is not completely settled, though. The House has voted to authorize nearly $400 million for next year to fund components for an additional 12 planes, and now the House and Senate must come up with a common version.
Meanwhile, appropriations panels in both chambers will also have their say when crafting final appropriations bills for the Defense Department. A House appropriations panel has already added money for the program.
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. Before I talk about the progress we’re making on health insurance reform, I want to say a few words about a very important vote that just took place in Congress.
Long before I took this office, I argued that meeting our greatest challenges would require not only changing policies in Washington, but changing the way we do business in Washington. I also promised that part of that change would be eliminating waste and inefficiency in our defense projects -- reform that will better protect our nation, better protect our troops, and save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.
As Commander-in-Chief, I will do whatever it takes to defend the American people, which is why we’ve increased our funding for our military, and why we will always give our men and women in uniform the equipment and support that they need to get the job done.
But I reject the notion that we have to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated and unnecessary defense projects to keep this nation secure. That's why I’ve taken steps to greatly reduce no-bid defense contracts. That's why I've signed overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation to limit cost overruns on weapons systems before they spiral out of control. And that's why I'm grateful that the Senate just voted against an additional $1.75 billion to buy F-22 fighter jets that military experts and members of both parties say we do not need.
At a time when we’re fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, this 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. Our budget is a zero-sum game, and if more money goes to F-22s, it is our troops and citizens who lose.
So I want to thank Secretary Gates for his outspoken leadership on this issue. I want to thank every member of Congress who put politics aside to do what’s right for the American military and the American taxpayers. And I particularly want to thank Senators Levin and McCain for helping to make this happen.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.