Tea Party freshmen on spot over funding for second F-35 jet engine

Pentagon brass and industry lobbyists are targeting new Tea Party-backed House members in the renewed fight over a second engine for the F-35, placing fiscal hawks at the center of the first major defense debate of 2011.

“This is the first vote on defense spending that will tell us where these Tea Party-affiliated members stand,” said one House aide.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday issued a public broadside on the alternate-engine project, urging new House members to help him end it. 

Gates said he hopes new, fiscally minded lawmakers will side with the Pentagon and determine the program is unnecessary and unaffordable. In a move that raised eyebrows in defense circles, the secretary urged those members to use a House rule allowing unlimited amendments on a 2011 continuing resolution (CR) to approve language that would kill the program. 

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a supporter of the Pratt engine, on Monday introduced just the kind of CR amendment that Gates called for. If approved by the full chamber, that amendment would strip more than $400 million in 2011 funds for the second engine now in the defense section of the House CR.

“The extra engine program, which our military leaders have said repeatedly they do not want or need, has already cost taxpayers about $3 billion, and the Pentagon estimates it will cost another $3 billion to complete development,” Rooney said in a statement. “The extra engine is a luxury we simply cannot afford.”

Aides say the Rooney amendment should come to the floor as early as Tuesday evening. 

Gates is not the only one reaching out to members who want to make big federal spending cuts. Rolls-Royce and General Electric officials also have been angling for support for their engine, pushing new members to support competition and oppose giving primary F-35 power plant-maker Pratt & Whitney “a monopoly.”

Rolls and GE officials have “met with virtually every new House and Senate member,” said Rick Kennedy, a GE spokesman. “The deficit-minded members are interested in two issues: cost savings and national security.”

Many new members had no prior knowledge of the engine debate before coming to Washington just weeks ago, congressional and industry sources said.

Sources on both sides say most new members are holding their cards close to the vest on this issue and other defense-spending questions, carefully delaying the point at which they signal how they will vote. 

House Armed Services Committee leaders and aides are still trying to nail down where new members of that panel will fall on the second engine and other defense-related legislative issues, said Josh Holly, the top Armed Services spokesman. 

New members of that panel so far have been “all over the place,” Holly said. 

GOP aides are looking for any signs that the new Tea Party members could join forces with liberal anti-war Democrats to force weapons program cuts and defense budget reductions, sources said.

Supporters of the second engine were attempting on Tuesday to count votes — and those efforts were focused largely on new members aligned with the Tea Party.

Two other new GOP lawmakers affiliated with the Tea Party — Reps. Tim GriffinTim GriffinFlynn discloses lobbying that may have helped Turkey Tea Party class reassesses record Huckabee's daughter to run '16 campaign MORE of Arkansas and Robert Dold of Illinois — revealed their opposition to the alternate engine on Monday.

“Spending an astounding $2.5 billion on a program that is unwanted and unnecessary is a violation of the trust the American people have placed in their congressional representatives. This is an easy budget cut that needs to be implemented quickly,” Dold said. “The taxpayers are fed up with their money being spent in this manner.”

Kennedy said there have been no defectors from the ranks of Rolls and GE’s traditional congressional supporters.

Those congressional supporters also are reaching out to fellow lawmakers new and old. In several “Dear Colleague” letters distributed on Capitol Hill on Monday, alternate engine stalwarts — Republicans and Democrats — cited a Government Accountability Office finding that the engine would, if completed, save over $20 billion over time. 

They also are arguing killing it would cut jobs across the country.

“Terminating the GE/Rolls-Royce competitive engine program will cost thousands of U.S. jobs,” Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) wrote in one letter. “About 2,500 U.S. jobs depend upon the development program today, and 4,000 U.S. jobs when it reaches the production phase.”

Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group said the second engine project “enjoys strong support from key congressmen, and I would still give it better than even odds of survival.”