Committee defies Obama

House defense appropriators on Thursday defied a veto threat from President Obama on funding the F-22 fighter jet and ignored several other cuts the administration proposed to high-profile Pentagon programs.

The defense-spending panel not only decided to keep Lockheed Martin’s F-22 fighter jet program alive — despite a personal promise by the president to veto any defense bill containing more funds — but went ahead with funding for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which also provoked an Obama veto threat. They also poured money into the now- defunct presidential helicopter program, which Obama said he doesn’t want.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, acknowledged the veto threat, and said if Congress does not have the votes to override the veto on the F-22, “We’ll back down on the damn thing.”

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But in a briefing with reporters, he said he wanted to convince the White House to at least agree to advance procurement to keep producers of spare parts and subcontractors alive to be able to provide materials in case there will be more F-22s.

Murtha on Thursday unveiled his subcommittee’s decisions, but the full Appropriations Committee must still approve them in a markup next week.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed cuts to make a statement about the need to overhaul the Pentagon’s buying practices and priorities. The moves by defense appropriators show they have a different take on Pentagon priorities.

The Pentagon immediately hit back at the changes.

“The secretary is pleased with the committee’s overall support for department needs, but he is disappointed it has chosen to give us money for things we do not need any more of, such as F-22s, or need at all, like a second engine for the F-35,” Geoff Morrell, Gates’s spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

“And he is dismayed that it continues to fund fundamentally flawed programs, such as the new presidential helicopter.”

Lockheed Martin and the Italian-British venture Agusta-Westland built the new presidential helicopter, the VH-71. The program is technically defunct and was canceled with much fanfare by the White House and Gates as a symbol of the administration’s responsible defense spending.

The helicopter program suffered from delays and ballooning costs; its price tag rose from an estimated $6.5 billion to $13 billion, in part because of growing technological requirements from the Marine One Squadron, which flies the presidential helicopters.

Defense appropriators are looking for a way to tap into the $3.2 billion already spent on the program. For 2010 they allocated $485 million to make operational five VH-71 helicopters that have already been delivered. Lockheed Martin this week announced that 600 employees will be laid off in coming months as a result of the cancellation of the helicopter program.

In funding the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), appropriators allotted $560 million for the General Electric-Rolls-Royce engine, which is in direct competition with the primary engine built by Pratt & Whitney. They also slashed $532 million from the JSF procurement accounts (which funds 28 airplanes), but boosted the development money by $430 million.

Defense appropriators decided to fund $369 million for parts to build 12 more Lockheed Martin radar-evading jets after 2010. The amount is the same as is included in the 2010 defense authorization bill the House has already passed.

Defense appropriators also funded three Boeing C-17 transport aircraft at $674 million. The administration did not request any funds for the program, which enjoys wide congressional support.

Murtha included language to allow Gates to choose two contractors for the new midair refueling tanker program and encourage the Pentagon to buy more than one aircraft a month. Boeing and a team of Northrop Grumman-EADS North America have been going head to head for the $35 billion contract for a couple years now.

Following through on his concern that the Navy is facing a significant fighter jet shortfall, Murtha appropriated $1.7 billion to buy 18 Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets — nine more airplanes than the Pentagon requested. Defense appropriators also included $108 million to facilitate a new multiyear procurement of the Super Hornets. Appropriators also funded 22 EA-18 G Growler electronic attack planes.

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House lawmakers are also ignoring Obama’s budget request for funds to close the Guantánamo Bay military detention center in Cuba by early next year. In the absence of a concrete plan on the transfer of detainees to other facilities, defense appropriators decided not to fund the administration’s request for funds.

“They are having a hell of a time” coming up with a plan on the future of the military detainees, Murtha said at a briefing with reporters Thursday. But if the administration comes up with a convincing plan, Congress would give the Pentagon the authority to reprogram existing funds within the defense budget to fund the closure, Murtha said.

Overall, House defense appropriators on Thursday approved a $636.3 billion Pentagon spending bill for 2010 that is $3.8 billion below the Pentagon’s request. The spending bill includes $128.3 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The full Appropriations Committee is slated to take up the bill on Wednesday.