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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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

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.

The reason is that a full-year continuing resolution would fund the department at about $526 billion – $23 billion less than anticipated. What’s more, some of the proposals being debated in Congress could add as much as an additional $15 billion in cuts.

“I want to make clear that we face a crisis on our doorstep if the Department of Defense ends up with a year-long continuing resolution or a significant funding cut,” Gates said.

He added: “The damage done across the force from such reductions would be magnified as they come halfway through the fiscal year.” This would, he said, “damage procurement and research programs causing delays, rising costs, no new program starts, and serious disruptions in the production of some of our most high-demand assets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Uncertainty ahead

The House's decision to strike $450 million for the JSF's alternate engine marks an early success for Gates. But the measure must also pass the Senate, and the prospects there are uncertain. So, too, is the matter of whether the military will be forced to operate under a continuing resolution.

“How will it play out? I don’t think anyone knows,” says Tom Donnelly, director for the Center of Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Politics are likely to play a pivotal role, Mr. Donnelly says. “There are 87 new members of Congress and they all think they’re Mr. Smith coming to Washington with a mandate to do something.”

But in the House – and particularly the Senate – they may not have the votes to push through more controversial cuts that go against Gates's wishes. “A lot of tea party people – whether they are able to get defense cuts through the House, let alone the Senate – can still say, ‘Well, we tried,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Such a scenario could even offer political benefits for tea party supporters come election time, he adds. “They can say, ‘If you want to deal with the deficit, you need to vote more of us into office.’ ”

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