Fighter jet program fuels tension between GOP sens

An effort by Sen. Saxby Chambliss to force the Pentagon into buying more F-22 fighter jets is reviving tensions between the Georgia Republican and a stalwart in his own party, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Chambliss won narrow approval at a closed-door Senate Armed Services Committee markup for his amendment authorizing $1.75 billion to purchase seven F-22 Raptors from Georgia-based Lockheed Martin — despite strong objections from McCain, the ranking Republican on the panel, and a veto threat from President Obama.

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McCain was irritated that Chambliss offered the amendment during the markup, according to sources, and has vowed to fight it on the Senate floor.

The two GOP senators sparred publicly in 2006 over the F-22 fighter jet. Chambliss ultimately won authorization for a multiyear contract — aided by Lockheed’s pervasive lobbying power — delivering a stunning blow to McCain and former panel Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), who did not approve of the contracting approach.

Chambliss and McCain got off to a bad start, with McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, criticizing negative ads Chambliss used in his first campaign for Senate to defeat a decorated Vietnam veteran.

The Republican senators put aside any bad feelings in 2008. Chambliss endorsed McCain for president and McCain campaigned for Chambliss, who narrowly won a second term during a post-election runoff.

But the two senators are now headed for another intense debate on the Senate floor, which is expected later this month.

In a news conference immediately after the Armed Services Committee markup, McCain promised to fight Chambliss’s amendment when the full Senate brings up the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill and hoped to prevail. He also has a strong ally on his side: Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services panel, who also opposed buying more F-22s.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not request any funds for more F-22s in the 2010 defense bill and their plan is to cap the production of the stealth fighter at 187. The White House has already issued a veto threat over more F-22s.

Chambliss has a direct interest in the production of the F-22. Lockheed builds the plane in Marietta, Ga., where hundreds of jobs could be at stake after the production line shutters. But he is not the only one with a large stake in the F-22 program. The defense giant has suppliers all over the country. For example, Pratt & Whitney builds the F-22 engine in Connecticut.

During the closed markup, Chambliss got support from three other Democrats and one Independent: Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.) — both voting by proxy — Mark Begich (Alaska) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for McCain, acknowledged tension between the two senators  on the F-22 because they are on different sides of the issue but did not comment further.

Chambliss’s office also declined to comment. But after the markup, Chambliss directed his fire at Obama.

“It is regrettable that the administration needs to issue a veto threat for funding intended to meet a real national security requirement that has been consistently confirmed by our uniformed military leaders,” Chambliss said in a statement after the committee voted on his amendment.

“Our debate and vote took place with full awareness of the administration’s veto threat, and the result of the vote speaks for itself.”

While the two men generally stick to arguing the merits of their conflicting positions, the debate turned personal in 2006.

Shortly after the Senate voted on Chambliss’s multiyear contract authorization, Chambliss publicly hinted that McCain’s staff leaked information pertaining to the F-22 to The Washington Post.

“I suspect we all know where that came from,” Chambliss said in his opening statement during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, adding that he thought it was staff who did “not appreciate the contract” who leaked the information.

McCain, turning crimson, swiftly asked Chambliss, “Which staff would you be referring to?”

Chambliss recanted but promised to pursue the matter. “I have no idea. But I intend to ask, senator, as to where it came from.”

The Post article indicated that the head of a federally financed research center could reap financial benefits from having endorsed a multiyear procurement plan for the Raptor. That person was Dennis Blair, who ended up resigning from his position. Blair, a retired admiral, is now Obama’s director of national intelligence.

A few hours after the exchange between Chambliss and McCain, the executive director of the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO) told the Senate panel that her organization had given the information to the Post.

Chambliss subsequently apologized to McCain.

The tension between the two men is not limited to the fighter debate. McCain had harsh words for a Chambliss ad in 2002 that compared then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Chambliss never served in the military.

“I’d never seen anything like that ad,” McCain said in 2003. “Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to the picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield — it’s worse than disgraceful. It’s reprehensible.”

Despite the harsh words during Chambliss’s first senatorial campaign, McCain — fresh off his presidential election loss — campaigned for Chambliss during his 2008 runoff with Democrat Jim Martin. As McCain helped fight to preserve a GOP seat, the Democrats made sure to air his statements against Chambliss’s 2003 Cleland ads.