House defies veto threat, funds 2nd F-35 engine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives, defying the Pentagon for a fourth straight year and a presidential veto threat, voted to preserve a second engine program for the multinational F-35 fighter jet.

The House vote on Thursday contrasted with the Senate Armed Services Committee, which added no funds for the alternate, interchangeable engine in line with Pentagon wishes.

The House would provide $485 million next year to continue work on the engine being built by a joint venture of General Electric Co and Rolls-Royce Group Plc.

Without competition, United Technologies Corp would have a decades-long monopoly on the projected $100 billion engine market for the more than 3,000 F-35s due to be bought by the United States and partner countries.

The issue was among the most contentious in the House’s version of a defense spending bill authorizing $567 billion for core Defense Department and Energy Department national security programs in fiscal 2011, which starts October 1.

Just hours earlier, the Senate Armed Services Committee went the other way, adding no funds for the second engine in its version of the 2011 Defense authorization bill.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, in a statement on the Senate committee’s bill adopted on Thursday, said the decision not to fund the alternate engine was a victory for U.S. taxpayers. Sen. Carl Levin, the panel chairman and a second engine backer, is to hold a press conference on Friday to discuss the bill.

Levin is on record as saying that he would not fight to preserve the second engine in committee, but would support it when a House-Senate conference meets to merge the companion bills.

“I want to do whatever I can to advance it,” Levin told Defense Daily, a trade publication, this week. “It may be better to leave it to conference if the House is going to (pass) it.”

The Defense Department, in response to the House vote, said this was but a step in the process and Defense Secretary Robert Gates would recommend a presidential veto if necessary to prevent funding the second engine.

Earlier in the day, the White House budget office said President Barack Obama’s senior advisors would recommend a presidential veto of any bill that funded what it called the “extra” engine.

General Electric, in a statement, said the vote was a win for competition and a win for U.S. taxpayers.

The competitive engine will save $20 billion over the 30-year span of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, it said, citing the non-partisan Government Accountability Office.

Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies unit whose engine is powering the early F-35 production models, said it was pleased with the action in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We recognize that the legislative process has just begun, and that the issue will continue to be debated for many months,” said Erin Dick, a company spokeswoman.

The House Armed Services Committee, in its recommendation to the full House, cited a “significant” national-security risk in case of a single engine for the F-35, which is to make up 95 percent of the U.S. tactical fighter fleet.

“The Committee believes it is unwarranted to risk grounding our entire fleet and incurring billions of dollars in unnecessary costs by cutting the second engine, particularly when there may be no additional cost over the life of the program,” it said last week.

Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Michael Perry