White House threatens veto over helicopter

The Obama administration is threatening to veto the House’s defense spending bill over $485 million in funds for several new helicopters to fly the president on short trips from the White House.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made the threat in a statement of administration policy on Tuesday as the House readied to debate the 2010 defense appropriations bill.

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The threat comes after President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the program earlier this year amid much fanfare as a symbol of responsible defense spending under the new administration.

“If the final bill were to include funds that continue the existing VH-71 program, or would prejudge the plan to re-compete the presidential helicopter program, the president’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” OMB said in the statement.

The VH-71 is a new presidential helicopter built by Lockheed Martin and the Italian-British venture AgustaWestland.

The new threat from OMB comes a week after Obama won a huge victory in the Senate on defense spending. The Senate voted against funding for additional F-22 jets after a personal veto threat by Obama and a heavy lobbying campaign by administration officials.

So far, Obama has not personally threatened a veto over the helicopter.

The VH-71 program has 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 squadron, which flies the presidential helicopter.

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.

The administration opposes spending any more money on the new helicopters until the Pentagon and White House complete an analysis they are conducting of the requirements for a new presidential helicopter. OMB said the outcome of this effort “should not be pre-empted” by additional appropriations.

The administration also fears that the five new helicopters will require even more investment in order to fly the president.

“These helicopters currently have no mission equipment and would require in excess of $2 billion to complete and to operate as presidential helicopters, yet would still not meet full operational requirements for that mission,” OMB said in the statement.

An older fleet of helicopters will continue to be used to ferry the president on short trips. Calls to replace the decades-old aircraft picked up after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The administration also threatened to veto the House bill over funds included for an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter if funding that engine would “seriously disrupt” the overall JSF program.

House appropriators allotted $560 million for the JSF’s alternate engine, built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, which is in direct competition with the primary engine built by Pratt & Whitney. They also slashed $532 million from the JSF procurement accounts (which fund 28 airplanes), but boosted development money for the fighter by $430 million.

The White House is also reiterating its veto threat over funds to build additional Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets.

In the wake of the Senate backing down after Obama’s F-22 veto threat, however, House appropriators have already indicated that they would move away from funding any additional F-22s beyond the 187 the Obama administration wants.

Defense appropriators initially funded $369 million for parts to build 12 more of the radar-evading jets after 2010. That’s the same amount included in the 2010 defense authorization bill already approved by the House.

But House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said he will seek to use some of the $369 million for spare parts and engines for existing F-22s and the rest would go to other defense programs, and not as a down payment of sorts on any additional jets.

While the administration also “strongly objects” to buying more Boeing C-17 transport aircraft, it does not threaten a veto on funding more of those planes.

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