Senate Nears Vote On F-22 Funding

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate debated Tuesday whether to spend $1.75 billion on seven additional F-22 jets, a decision that pits the possible loss of thousands of defense jobs against Obama administration assertions that the Pentagon has enough of the fighters and the program should be terminated.

Lawmakers from states that would benefit from manufacturing the jets want the money pumped into the aerospace and defense industries. Defense Secretary Robert Gates counters that the money would be better spent on ensuring that the military has the tools it needs to fight the unconventional wars taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The chamber was expected to vote on the issue Tuesday.

Gates has been calling wavering senators to urge their support for cutting off spending for new F-22s. Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials have also been calling lawmakers to press the issue and remind Congress that President Barack Obama has threatened what would be the first veto of his presidency if the money isn't removed.

"What I have not heard is substantive reason for adding more aircraft in terms of our strategic needs," Gates said Monday while reiterating his opposition to the purchase.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Tuesday that spending on the stealth fighter would "inhibit our ability to buy things we do need," including Gates' proposal to add 22,000 soldiers to the Army.

The $1.75 billion is currently part of a $680 billion defense spending policy bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, sponsored the amendment to take out the F-22 money.

"The Senate has heard from the senior leadership of the Defense Department both civilian and military that we should end F-22 production. The recommendation is strong and clear, as strong and clear as I have ever heard," Levin said.

But there's strong resistance, particularly from senators representing states where the plane and its parts are made.

According to Lockheed Martin Corp., the main contractor, 25,000 people are directly employed in building the plane, and another 70,000 have indirect links, particularly in Georgia, Texas and California. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a supporter of the program, said there are 1,000 suppliers in 44 states.

Dodd, speaking on the Senate floor last week, questioned why Congress should approve $65 billion to prop up the automobile industry but can't spend $1.75 billion to support an important segment of the aerospace industry.

Supporters of the program also argued that it would undermine the nation's security to terminate the F-22 when China and Russia are both developing fighter jets that can compete with it.

The Senate took up the F-22 issue last week, but then put it aside to deal with two amendments having nothing to do with defense. On Thursday senators voted to adopt a major expansion to hate crimes law, and on Monday they turned to a proposal allowing people with concealed weapons permits in one state to carry their weapons into other states. A vote on the gun law was expected Wednesday.

The House last month approved its version of the defense bill with a $369 million down payment for 12 additional F-22 fighters. The House Appropriations Committee last week endorsed that spending in drawing up its Pentagon budget for next year. It also approved $534 million for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another program that Obama, backed by the Pentagon, says is unwarranted and would subject the entire bill to a veto.

The defense bill authorizes $550 billion for defense programs and $130 billion for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other anti-terrorist operations.

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