WASHINGTON — The Senate voted today to halt production of the Air Force’s missile-eluding F-22 Raptor fighter jets in a high-stakes, veto-laden showdown over President Barack Obama’s efforts to shift defense spending to a next generation of smaller, single-engine F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
The 58-40 vote reflected an all-out lobbying campaign by the Obama administration, which had to overcome resistance from lawmakers confronted with the losses of defense-related jobs if the F-22 program is terminated.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was “probably the most impactful amendment that I have seen in this body on almost any issue.” He said it was “about whether we will stop doing business as usual, and that is continuing to fund weapons systems that are no longer needed.”
The vote removed $1.75 billion set aside in a $680 billion defense policy bill to build seven more F-22 Raptors, adding to the 187 stealth technology fighters already being built.
The Senate action also saved Obama from what could have been a political embarrassment. He had urged the Senate to strip out the money and threatened what would be the first veto of his presidency if the F-22 money remained in the defense bill.
Immediately after the vote, Obama told reporters at the White House the Senate’s decision will “better protect our troops.”
White House officials said Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel lobbied senators, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who both publicly and in conversations with lawmakers stressed that the Pentagon has enough F-22s for its operational needs and can put the money to better uses.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said today that spending on the stealth fighter would “inhibit our ability to buy things we do need,” including Gates’ proposal to add 22,000 soldiers to the Army.
“I’ve never seen the White House lobby like they’ve lobbied on this issue,” said Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, whose state would be hit hard by a shutdown of F-22 operations.
Supporters of the program cited both the importance of the F-22 to U.S. security interests — pointing out that China and Russia are developing planes that can compete with the F-22 — and the need to protect aerospace jobs in a bad economy.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and McCain, the top Republican on the panel, sponsored the amendment to take out the F-22 money.
“The Senate has heard from the senior leadership of the Defense Department both civilian and military that we should end F-22 production. The recommendation is strong and clear, as strong and clear as I have ever heard,” Levin said.
Gates and other Pentagon officials have determined that production of the F-22, which is designed for combat in a war where the enemy has an air force and has not been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be stopped at 187 planes in order to focus on the F-35, a smaller next-generation plane that would also be available to the Navy and Marine Corp.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered that the F-35 is designed to supplement, not replace, the F-22, “the “Nascar racer of this air dominance team.” Supporters of the F-22 have put the number of F-22s needed at anywhere from 250 to 380.
According to Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor, 25,000 people are directly employed in building the plane, and another 70,000 have indirect links, particularly in Georgia, Texas and California.
The House last month approved its version of the defense bill with a $369 million down payment for 12 additional F-22 fighters. The House Appropriations Committee last week endorsed that spending in drawing up its Pentagon budget for next year. It also approved $534 million for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another program that Obama, backed by the Pentagon, says is unwarranted and would subject the entire bill to a veto.
The defense bill authorizes $550 billion for defense programs and $130 billion for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other anti-terrorist operations.
The defense bill is S. 1390.