Lawmakers vote for second fighter engine against Obama wishes

In a setback to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, congressional defense authorizers are poised to green-light funding for an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to several sources familiar with the decision.

Conferees on the 2010 defense authorization bill are set for a final meeting Wednesday morning. The House may vote on the conference report as early as Thursday.

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The decision to fund a second engine for the F-35, made by a team of General Electric and Rolls-Royce, comes in the aftermath of strong opposition by Gates and the Obama administration. It also comes on the heels of an intense lobbying battle between Pratt & Whitney, which builds the primary engine, and GE-Rolls.

The defense authorizers decided to pour $560 million into the GE-Rolls engine for fiscal 2010. The money is an addition to the budget and does not come out of the overall funding for the F-35 program.

The Office of Management and Budget in a recent statement of administration policy said that it would recommend a veto to President Barack Obama if funding the second engine jeopardized the overall F-35 program — a large multi-service, multi-national fighter jet program. Obama himself did not threaten to veto the defense bill over the engine funds, as he did with another program, the F-22 fighter jet.

The Senate version of the defense authorization bill did not include funds for the second engine, but the concept of having an “engine war” between two companies has strong support in the House and among senators, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.