House panel risks veto by supporting funds for second F-35 fighter engine

The House defense appropriations panel on Tuesday funded a secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, risking a veto of the 2011 spending bill.

In an 11-5 vote, the panel approved $450 million for an engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce despite opposition from Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the subcommittee’s chairman.

Dicks said he is convinced President Obama will veto the bill. “I did not want to get my first bill vetoed,” said Dicks, who took over the chairmanship earlier this year.

Dicks pointed out the House does not have the votes to override an Obama veto.

The engine funding was included in the $681.8 billion defense spending bill approved by the panel. It includes $157 billion for the war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama has threatened to veto any defense bills that contain funding for the secondary engine. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has fought against the GE-Rolls-Royce engine, arguing that a backup engine is a waste of money and that the Pentagon only needs the primary engine made by Pratt &Whitney, a unit of United Technology.

“I feel like a broken record on this,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. “This is something we don’t need, we don’t want, and we can’t afford. Despite today’s vote Secretary Gates has made clear he will do whatever is necessary to make sure that we don’t continue to throw good money after bad in pursuit of the extra engine, and he has the support of President Obama.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top Republican House appropriator, offered the amendment to add the funding for the secondary engine, sources said. The panel’s proceedings were closed to the public.

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member, was supposed to offer the amendment during the committee’s proceedings Tuesday afternoon.

Young’s office announced Monday that the Florida lawmaker was laid up in the hospital awaiting back surgery, creating some trepidation among the engine’s supporters. Supporters saw it as critical to see the funding approved at the subcommittee level to avoid more than a month of congressional recess in which detractors, including Dicks, could convince lawmakers to vote against the second engine.

The funding is likely to stick when the full House Appropriations Committee considers the 2011 defense-spending bill. Any efforts to strike the funding when the House eventually votes on the bill likely would be defeated.

Supporters of the second engine enjoyed at least a 38-vote margin at the last count.

Contracting two engines for the largest fighter jet program in Pentagon history has enjoyed strong congressional support, particularly in the House, for years.

Supportive members of the defense committees have argued that a backup engine would be useful if there are problems with the primary engine, and that competition between two engine-makers could save money over the life of the program. Defense authorizers also believe that a competitive F-35 engine program would reap non-financial benefits such as increased reliability, improved contractor responsiveness and a more robust fighter engine industrial base.

Even though he supported the second engine in the past, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) is not likely to fund it in his version of the bill, in large part because there aren’t enough supporters for the secondary engine in the Senate.

The fate of the secondary engine will be in limbo until the House and Senate negotiate the final 2011 defense appropriations bill.

The panel also decided against funding more Boeing C-17 cargo planes, which the administration opposes. Obama also issued a veto threat over additional funding for Boeing’s cargo planes.

In order to offset the cost of the $485 million secondary engine, the panel approved cuts to funding for stockpile replenishment, Dicks said.

Overall, the panel trimmed $7 billion from the Pentagon’s request by cutting “bits and pieces” from programs that were either under-executed or that had more money than needed, Dicks said. The defense subcommittee does not approve funds for military construction, which are included in the Pentagon’s yearly request. Those funds are the responsibility of another appropriations subcommittee.

The defense panel made no significant cuts to major weapons programs. The defense appropriators approved funds for 42 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, one fighter jet fewer than the Pentagon’s request. They also cut $100 million from the Army’s new ground combat vehicle program, but added about $170 million for General Dynamics’ Strykers with a double-V hull for roadside bomb protection. Overall, the Stryker program received about $500 million.

Because Dicks agreed to a moratorium on all earmarks to for-profit companies, his panel agreed to appropriate $604 million —$504 million in research and development funds, and $100 million in procurement funds — to provide the Defense Department with resources that will spur innovation.

The panel included language that would allow the Pentagon to build on the models of existing programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research program and the Rapid Equipping Force.