Senators voted Tuesday to strip $1.7 billion of funding from the defense budget that would have built seven more F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Secretary Gates favored removal of the funding, and the vote could signal his ability to change the status quo on defense spending.
"Up until the last couple of hours, this vote was in doubt," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said after the vote. "This was one of the most significant votes in national security in the years I've been in the Senate."
President Obama threatened to veto any bill that continued building the plane beyond the 187 the administration supports.
The administration, with Gates as its front man on defense, is seeking to change the way defense dollars are spent. It's trying to curtail programs it sees as wasteful and divert those funds to more-relevant programs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The controversy over the F-22 has become the effort’s largest symbol.
“At a time when we’re fighting two wars, and facing a serious deficit, [approval of the F-22 money] would have been an inexcusable waste of money,” Mr. Obama said at a Rose Garden event on healthcare Tuesday.
But the F-22 controversy isn't over. The House has included funding for additional F-22s in its legislation, so the two versions of the legislation will have to reconciled – maybe not until September.
Still, the Senate vote sends a powerful message for the rest of the discourse over the $664 billion spending bills for defense, Pentagon officials say.
Proponents of the plane argued for preserving jobs in the name of national security. The plane is needed to fight “near peer” states such as China, argued Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, where components of the plane are assembled. In addition, the plane sends a message to the men and women wearing the Air Force uniform, Senator Chambliss said.
“They are watching this anxiously because they signed up to be a part of the United States Air Force that believes in putting men and women in cockpits, men and women that are going to take the fight to the enemy,” he told the Senate floor Tuesday. “But what are they hearing from the leadership from the Pentagon? Move away from the most advanced fighter.”
But senators were more taken by an emerging push for change. McCain invoked President Eisenhower’s famous speech in which he warned of the influence of the “defense industrial complex” on defense spending. McCain said that congressional meddling also hurts, quipping that he calls it the “military industrial congressional complex.”
Estimates suggest that between 25,000 and 95,000 jobs could be lost when the F-22 production lines ultimately close. But critics say that is no reason to keep building an unnecessary plane. And the net effect may be a gain in jobs, because cutting the F-22 would allow the Pentagon to build more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Gates told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
“Sacrifices will be made; jobs will be lost. It will cause disruption in some communities,” McCain said. “But our first obligation is the defense of this nation and the use of scarce defense dollars in the most effective fashion.”
Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.
Follow us on Twitter.