Lawmakers jockey for support on hot-button defense issues

Lawmakers this week will be jockeying to gain support for several hot-button issues that are going to heat up House debate over the 2011 defense authorization act.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is leading the effort to gain support for an amendment to the massive defense policy bill that would strip funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter backup engine made by General Electric and Rolls Royce.

So far, Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) are emerging as the main co-sponsors of the amendment to strip the $485 million from the bill, but the actual language and strategy are still under consideration.

The goal in part is to have a good number of backers for the amendment who are not just from Connecticut to avoid the perception that it is a parochial battle. Pratt & Whitney, the primary engine maker, is based in Connecticut, Larson’s home state. Pratt & Whitney also has Defense Secretary Robert Gates on its side: Gates this week reinforced that he would recommend a veto over the backup engine.

Debating the fate of the backup engine on the House floor will become a high-stakes battle. In the fight to preserve both engines for the fighter program the House has so far always authorized funding for the engine in its versions of the defense policy bills. But last year, the Senate successfully stripped the funding, and the GE-Rolls Royce engine could meet the same fate this year. One of the chambers would have to keep it in its versions of the bill in order for it to become an item of negotiation during conference.

But the highly technical acquisition and policy debate over whether the largest fighter jet program should have a backup engine and competition between engine makers will not be the only issue hotly debated this week.

Lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are still trying to figure out whether they would be able to muster enough votes to pass the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the ban that prevents openly gay people from serving in the military. Supporters of the repeal are working to figure out a way that guarantees the ban would be scrapped by year’s end. The next few days will be critical in crystallizing that path.

The House is expected to take up the 2011 defense authorization bill on Thursday.