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House votes to scrap F-35 engine: why Gates can't crow too loudly

The House voted Wednesday to stop funding for an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a program Defense Secretary Robert Gates called 'unnecessary.' But his arm-twisting of Congress is far from finished.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / February 16, 2011

Defense Secretary Robert Gates (second from left) testifies about the Pentagon budget before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington Wednesday. The House later heeded his advice and struck down funding for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

By day’s end Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had scored a considerable victory.

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Just hours after he told Congress that it must halt funding for the production of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – or he would “look at all available legal options" to do it himself – the House heeded his warning. It voted 233 to 198 to kill the program that Gates had called “an unnecessary and extravagant expense."

But shortly after the vote, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell issued a statement that was measured in its praise: "This afternoon’s vote is but one step, although a very important one, on the path to ensuring that we stop spending limited dollars on unwanted and unneeded defense programs.”

The day, in many respects, encapsulated the challenges Gates faces as he goes before Congress this week to answer questions about the Pentagon’s budget.

On one hand, the secretary who has challenged the military establishment to take a "hard, unsparing look" at spending, must first convince lawmakers to go along with cuts to pricey programs that the department deems wasteful. No small feat, given that legislators tend to protect lucrative defense contracts in their home districts, such as the contract to build a second, backup engine for the F-35.

Yet he must also curry Capitol Hill's favor to keep at bay calls from Democrats and tea partyers for deeper cuts the Pentagon is unwilling to make.

Gates on the offensive

In an effort to make the stakes for the military clear to lawmakers on this path, Gates went on the offensive Wednesday morning in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. His focus was one that has come to dominate the Pentagon in recent weeks: the 2011 budget. He warned that Congress's apparent willingness to punt on passing a budget for this fiscal year and instead merely pass a stopgap "continuing resolution" threatens to cause “serious damage” to the US military.

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