Obama, Gates win on F-22 fighter jet vote

The Senate on Tuesday gave President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates a victory in the bitter fight over Lockheed Martin’s F-22 fighter jets.

The Senate voted 58-40 to strike $1.75 billion from the 2010 defense authorization bill that would have funded seven more F-22s than what the Obama administration wanted. The administration wants to cap the F-22 fleet at 187 planes.

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Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sponsored the amendment. They both are opposed to funding more F-22s, but Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) had won narrow approval during the committee's markup of the bill for his provision to add $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s during the committee’s markup of the bill. Lockheed builds the planes in his state.

Shortly after the vote, both Levin and McCain underscored the importance of the Senate giving Obama and Gates a victory on striking the F-22 funds.

The Senate made a “significant decision” on Tuesday after “a very tough battle,” Levin said. “The president needed to win this vote,” not only because he was personally opposed to more F-22s, but also in terms of his overall reform agenda, Levin added.

The fight to stop the production of the F-22 had become intensely personal for both Obama and Gates. Obama personally vowed to veto any defense bill that contained additional funds for the F-22.

Gates in recent days hit back at Congress for not supporting his plan to rein in the costs at the Pentagon — with the F-22 being one of the symbols of Gates’s plan to overhaul the agency’s weapons-buying practices.

Gates and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made personal calls to lawmakers in recent days to sway them to support the administration’s position.

Minutes after the Senate vote, the Pentagon issued a statement praising it.

“Secretary Gates appreciates the careful consideration senators have given to this matter of national security,” Geoff Morrell, Gates's spokesman, said in a statement. "He 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.”

McCain told reporters that Tuesday’s vote also symbolizes a change “in the ways we do business in Washington.” He admitted that the vote had been in doubt as late as Tuesday morning and called it “one of the most significant votes” for national security.

“I’d like to give credit to President Obama for standing firm,” he said. 

One key vote in support of more F-22s was missing on Tuesday: that of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is still out with health issues. Kennedy was able to vote by proxy in favor of more F-22s during the committee’s markup last month.

But Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has also been struggling with health issues, showed up to vote no. Byrd, like Kennedy, voted through a proxy last month to keep producing the F-22. He kept the same position as he came to vote early. He was in a wheelchair.

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Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made a major turnaround by voting to strike the fighters after saying he would support buying more F-22s. Overall, 42 Democrats, and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), voted in favor of the amendment. Fifteen Republicans also helped with Obama’s win. Most of Obama’s allies in the Democratic leadership voted to strike the F-22 funds: Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.).

But California’s two senators, Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D), voted against the amendment, along with 12 other Democrats and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also voted against the amendment. Boeing in Washington state is a major subcontractor for the F-22. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) voted against the amendment; Connecticut is the home of Pratt & Whitney, the engine producer for the F-22. Hawaii’s two Democratic senators, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both voted against the amendment.

The Obama administration’s fight is far from over. Defense appropriators in the House decided to fund $369 million for advance purchase of parts to build 12 more F-22s after 2010. The full House Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up the 2010 defense-spending bill on Wednesday.

The Senate defense authorizers will also have to head to conference negotiations with their House counterparts over the 2010 defense authorization bill. With the Senate not authorizing any funds for the F-22, it could be easier for conferees to strike the money the House authorizers approved. Levin said he hoped the House would be influenced by Obama’s veto threat and agree to a 2010 defense authorization bill without F-22 funds.

Senate defense appropriators have not scheduled their markup of the 2010 defense appropriations bill, but top appropriator Inouye’s "no" vote could be a strong indication. Levin, however, said that he hoped the overwhelming vote could dissuade the defense appropriators from staging another fight with the administration. Both Levin and McCain vowed to fight any F-22 funding when the appropriations bill gets to the Senate floor.

This story was updated at 2 p.m.