By Roxana Tiron - 07/14/09 07:40 PM EDT
Several senior Democrats may defy party leaders on an important defense vote — and the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting is dividing the party’s Senate majority.
President Obama personally vowed to veto any defense bill containing additional funds for the F-22 fighter jet program.
But several senior Democrats are from states that will see gains from building more F-22s.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who represents the state where Pratt & Whitney builds the F-22 engine, told The Hill he was working with his Democratic colleagues to convince them to support the purchase of more jets despite the president’s opposition. Dodd also faces a tough reelection campaign next year.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, will be a key vote to watch. The watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, which supports removing the F-22 funds, lists Schumer as poised to vote against stripping the money.
Schumer declined to say how he was voting, telling The Hill he is still studying the issue, and advised: “Watch the vote.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is co-sponsoring an amendment with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking member, to remove the funds.
The vote on that amendment was originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon but was moved to Wednesday morning.
Congressional sources said there is much coaxing taking place behind the scenes to convince as many senators as possible to vote in favor of the Levin-McCain amendment.
But a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), an Obama ally opposed to more funding, said the party is not whipping the vote on the amendment and there is no leadership position on the funding.
“Senators are aware that the president has stated that he intends to veto the bill if the F-22 language is included, but the majority leader has told senators they should vote their conscience on this amendment,” Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said in a statement. “While [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] and Durbin, along with the chair of [the] Armed Services Committee, Sen. Levin, support the amendment, we are not whipping the vote.”
Kerry has been quoted in reports as supporting the additional funds. Earlier this year, Murray and Cantwell wrote letters in support of the funds, since Boeing, based in Washington state, builds a large part of the plane.
Murray took to the Senate floor late Tuesday to voice her support for the funds. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) voted for the funds in committee and told The Hill he will vote against their removal.
The Obama administration wants to cap the F-22 fleet at 187 aircraft and did not request funds for additional jets in 2010. But Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who represents the state where Lockheed-Martin builds the plane, narrowly won approval for seven more planes when the committee marked up the bill behind closed doors.
Chambliss has been leading the charge to scuttle the Levin-McCain amendment and told The Hill that he has been lobbying both Republican and Democratic colleagues to vote against removing the funding.
Democrats could also feel pressure from labor unions, several of which have come out in favor of buying more F-22s. The United Steelworkers, which has 850,000 members, urged senators on Monday to support the building of more jets.
Some Republicans smell an opportunity to force the president to veto the bill, particularly if, as expected, it contains social issues, such as hate-crimes legislation, which are paramount to the Democrats.
Republicans have opposed the hate-crimes legislation in the past and are also poised to oppose a potential amendment by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would challenge the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.
A spokeswoman for Reid said in a statement that the F-22 issue divides “the Senate on both sides of the aisle.”
“It’s critical for our troops to get a defense authorization bill done,” said Regan Lachapelle, Reid’s spokeswoman. She also stressed that there is no avoiding the hate-crimes legislation.
“Sen. Reid intends to get this bill done in the fastest way possible. We have more senators and a supportive White House. This is the right time and the right vehicle to get this passed,” she said.
Meanwhile, supporters of the F-22 could lose two important votes: those of Kennedy and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who have been struggling with their health. Both voted in favor of more money during the committee markup through proxies, but a vote on the Senate floor must be made in person.