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Senate Vote Against F-22 Funds a Win for Obama

July 21, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In a key political victory for President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Senate on Tuesday voted 58-40 to block $1.75 billion in financing for new F-22 fighter jets. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: And next tonight, a Senate showdown on defense spending. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: The F-22 Raptor fighter is a stealth aircraft built to ensure American air dominance over the battlefield. But on a vote of 58-40 today, the U.S. Senate called a halt to further production of the planes that cost more than $350 million each.

The vote to keep the F-22 fleet at 187 aircraft was a significant victory for President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, who have labeled the F-22 program an outmoded, expensive luxury.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar of waste in our defense budget is a dollar we can’t spend to support our troops or prepare for future threats or protect the American people. Our budget is a zero-sum game. And if more money goes to F-22s, it is our troops and our citizens who lose.

KWAME HOLMAN: The F-22 originally was planned and designed to take on the Soviet air force. None has flown in combat over Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s why Secretary Gates decided earlier this year no more F-22s were needed.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: The military advice that I got was that there is no military requirement for numbers of F-22s beyond 187.

KWAME HOLMAN: But that led to a confrontation with Congress, one of the biggest on defense spending in decades. Mark Thompson covers the Pentagon for Time magazine.

MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: The F-22 was a very symbolic issue for Secretary Gates based on the people I’m speaking to, simply because it’s emblematic of an old-fashioned kind of war that most military experts don’t see looming on the horizon. In fact, they don’t see it for the next 20 to 30 years at the earliest.

KWAME HOLMAN: Members from both parties, along with contractors, counterattacked and the climax today came on the Senate floor. The fight was over an amendment to the defense authorization bill offered by the top senators on the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin and John McCain, to cut funding for the plane, which is manufactured or subcontracted in 44 states.

The stakes were raised by the president’s promise to veto any bill with extra F-22 money, a message reinforced in strong terms by Secretary Gates in a speech last week in Chicago.

ROBERT GATES: Where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right, what on Earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates’ vehemence was echoed today by Senator Levin.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: If not now, when? If not now, when? When will we end production of a weapons system if not now, when you have both President Obama and President Bush trying to end it, secretaries of defense trying to end it, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs trying to end the production of the F-22. We must now do the sensible thing.

Strange bedfellows

KWAME HOLMAN: The amendment fight led to cross-aisle coalitions of senators who often are at odds.

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss led the charge for the funding. Lockheed Martin, which is the principal contractor building the F-22, has significant operations in his state. Chambliss invoked airmen and soldiers who have little say in the funding debate.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS, R-Ga.: They've been willing to stand up and say that, if you cut production of the F-22 off at 187, you're going to put this country at a high risk from a national security standpoint.

KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd argued that thousands of jobs were at stake.

SEN. CHRIS DODD, D-Conn.: From both a manufacturing perspective, a job loss at a time when unemployment rates are skyrocketing, this body is about to lay off anywhere from 25,000 to 90,000 people.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain recognized that potential employment impact, but in arguing against the funding invoked a famous warning from Dwight Eisenhower.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I would only add to President Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation, which is compelling in many ways, that it should be changed -- the words should be changed from military industrial to military industrial congressional complex.

What we are seeing here, despite the advice and counsel of our president, of our secretary of defense, of our uniformed military, with rare exception, is a recommendation that we stop with this aircraft and build another.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mark Thompson.

MARK THOMPSON: The sense of today's vote was, if the F-22 proponents had succeeded, that that really could have derailed Secretary Gates' efforts to retool the Pentagon in a significant way.

This may be the first time in a decade that an important vote in Congress about the future shape and direction of the U.S. military has taken place. The people I talked to suggest that this vote today is a big victory for Secretary Gates and will help him continue to remake the Pentagon.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today's vote appears to be the end of the line for the F-22, even though the House preserved funding for the plane in its version of the defense bill. The two bills now will be reconciled and the final fate of the Raptor likely decided.