Senators put the brakes on a controversial effort to buy seven pricey fighter jets with taxpayer money today, avoiding a showdown that had promised to set the stage for President Obama's first potential veto.
In a victory for the president, the Senate voted 58-40 to remove $1.75 billion for the F-22 jets from a bill being considered on Capitol Hill. Money to buy the radar-evading fighter planes that have not seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan will not be included in the Senate version of this year's defense authorization measure.
Both the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed their satisfaction shortly after the vote.
Obama immediately said he was "grateful" to the Senate for its vote, calling funding for F-22s "an inexcusable waste of money."
"Secretary Gates appreciates the careful consideration Senators have given to this matter of national security and he applauds their bipartisan support to complete the F-22 program at 187 planes," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell in a statement. "He understands that for many members this was a very difficult vote, but he believes that the Pentagon cannot continue with business as usual when it comes to the F-22 or any other program in excess to our needs."
Both the Pentagon and the White House had urged lawmakers not to fund the plane, threatening a veto if senators kept the money in the measure. But lawmakers from several states where the aircraft is made said the project creates jobs back home.
For that reason, it was a debate that did not split neatly down party lines. Obama sided with former rival, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, in hopes of removing the funding. Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., were adamant about keeping the money in the bill.
Today an impassioned Dodd called the successful effort to remove funding for the F-22 "a dangerous amendment," adding, "The F-22, by any estimation, is the most superior aircraft in the world."
Dodd warned that removing money for the jet would cost his state 2,000 to 4,000 jobs, in addition to several thousand more job losses elsewhere.
"In a time when unemployment rates are skyrocketing, this body is about to lay off anywhere from 25,000 to 90,000 people," Dodd said before the vote.
"The F-22 has not flown one mission over Afghanistan or Iraq because it is not designed to meet the challenges we are currently facing," Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., countered today on the Senate floor. As senators debated the F-22 money for two hours this morning, Kaufman added that the jet was made for "the wars of the past -- the wars we've already won."
"What I have not heard [from members of Congress] is a substantive reason for adding more aircraft in terms of our strategic needs," Gates said Monday.
"Some of the wheeling and dealing on the Hill, of a few hundred million here and a few hundred million there, for a pet project here and pet project there, confront us with ever more difficult choices when we're trying to make trade-offs in terms of how do we help our soldiers out -- how do we relieve the stress on the force," Gates said. "The money's gotta come from somewhere."
The administration has argued that the money could be put to better use for weapons like F-35 planes designed to be used by the Air Force, Marines, and Navy as well as key American allies. The F-35 fighter jet program that could eventually number 2,443 planes and cost $1 trillion.
On Monday, Gates said that by axing the program to fund the F-22, there "would be a substantial increase in the number of jobs in the aerospace industry."
"The F-35 already has 38,000 employees," Gates said. "That will go to 64,000 in FY '10 and 82,000 in FY '11 if we don't drain money away from it."
"To continue to procure additional F-22s would be to waste valuable resources that should be more usefully employed to provide our troops with the weapons that they actually do need," Obama wrote in July 13 letters to Sens. McCain and Carl Levin, D-Mich., urging them to remove the funding.
Debate over other elements of the broad defense bill will continue throughout the week on the Senate floor.
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