By Roxana Tiron - 07/21/09 07:31 PM EDT
While the battle over the radar-evading fighter is far from over, the Senate’s 58-40 vote to strip the funding for seven planes from the fiscal 2010 defense policy bill marks a defining moment for Obama. Using the power of the veto and intense lobbying, he convinced lawmakers to curb the fighter jet program despite bipartisan support to keep it growing.
“It’s an important moment,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told The Hill. “It shows that he [Obama] is effective in promoting his change agenda and it shows that he can work on a bipartisan basis.”
Levin co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s opponent in the presidential election, to strike $1.75 billion for seven more F-22s.
Both Levin and McCain admitted the outcome was in question on Tuesday before the vote.
McCain said the wide voting margin was “directly attributable” to Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
McCain said Tuesday’s vote symbolizes a change “in the ways we do business in Washington.” He called it “one of the most significant votes” for national security.
“I’d like to give credit to President Obama for standing firm,” he said.
It is also a big win for Gates, who has made trimming the F-22 program the foundation of reshaping the nation’s defense priorities.
Obama, Gates and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel all made personal calls to senators up until the vote on Tuesday.
“At a time when we are fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, this would have been an inexcusable waste of money,” Obama said in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
Gates “understands that for many members this was a very difficult vote, but he believes that the Pentagon cannot continue with business as usual when it comes to the F-22 or any other program in excess to our needs,” Geoff Morrell, Gates’s spokesman, said in a statement.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) won narrow approval during the Armed Services Committee markup for the provision adding the money for the seven planes, which Lockheed Martin builds in his state.
One key vote in support of more F-22s was missing on Tuesday. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is battling brain cancer and has made few appearances on Capitol Hill this year. Kennedy was able to vote by proxy in favor of more F-22s during the committee’s markup last month.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was hospitalized with an infection last month, returned to the chamber for the first time in nearly two months in a wheelchair and voted against the amendment. Byrd, like Kennedy, voted through a proxy last month to keep producing the F-22.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) voted to strike the fighters after saying he would support buying more F-22s.
Overall, 42 Democrats and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted for the amendment, as did 15 Republicans. The top three members of Democratic leadership — Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — backed stripping the funds.
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic Conference secretary, voted against the amendment. Boeing, a major subcontractor for the F-22, is based in Washington state. Twelve other Democrats voted no, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — who represents a state where Pratt & Whitney, the engine producer for the F-22, is based — and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (Hawaii).
The Obama administration’s fight is far from over. Defense appropriators in the House decided to fund $369 million for the advance purchase of parts to build 12 more F-22s after 2010. The full House Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up the 2010 defense-spending bill on Wednesday.
The Senate defense authorizers will also have to head to conference negotiations with their House counterparts over the 2010 defense authorization bill. With the Senate not authorizing any funds for the F-22, it could be easier for conferees to strike the money the House authorizers approved. Levin said he hoped the House would be influenced by Obama’s veto threat and agree to a 2010 defense authorization bill without F-22 funds.
Senate defense appropriators have not scheduled their markup of the 2010 defense appropriations bill, but Inouye’s “no” vote could be a strong indication. Levin, however, said that he hoped the overwhelming vote could dissuade the defense appropriators from staging another fight with the administration. Both Levin and McCain vowed to fight any F-22 funding when the appropriations bill gets to the Senate floor.
Sam Youngman contributed to this story.