WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is committed to ending funding this year for a second engine being developed for the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday.
“The president’s serious about drawing the line,” Gibbs told the Reuters Washington Summit, referring to Obama’s threat to veto any defense spending bill that funds a alternate F-35 engine being built by General Electric Co (GE.N) and Britain’s Rolls-Royce Group Plc (RR.L).
“This is a good year to get it done,” Gibbs said, signaling the administration’s willingness to engage in the arm-twisting that helped the White House succeed in terminating the F-22 fighter jet last year.
Lawmakers, arguing that competition will save money in the longer run, have repeatedly rejected administration efforts to cancel the GE-Rolls engine. The GE engine is being developed as an alternate to the engine built by Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) unit, that powers early-production versions of the Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) F-35 fighter.
Gibbs said Obama had spent a great deal of time with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, discussing Gates’ restructuring efforts and was “absolutely” committed to continuing the work.
Republican Senator John McCain told the Reuters summit on Monday he expected Gates to prevail with his effort to cancel the alternate engine, calling him “as influential a secretary of defense as I can ever remember,” and citing growing voter frustration about government spending.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the rising popularity of the Tea Party movement of conservative Republicans underscored voter anger about years of big “earmarks” for lawmaker-favored weapons programs. This sentiment could give Gates “strong ammunition” as he sought to trim Pentagon spending and cancel the GE engine program.
McCain blasted Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, for adding funding for various earmarks to the bill authorizing defense spending in fiscal 2011, noting that each project would increase Pentagon spending for years to come. “These are not one-shot deals,” he said.
Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said many Republicans had also supported earmarks over the years. But he said the economic climate was clearly helping Gates’ efforts bear fruit.
“By the end of the year, when the budget process is complete, there will have been a number of reforms made,” Berman told the Reuters Washington Summit.
Levin, who supports the second engine, last week said a new Government Accountability Office report boosted the case for completion of the GE-Rolls alternate engine for the F-35.
The new GAO report said completing the engine could cost less than $2.9 billion estimated by the Pentagon. GE contends it needs about $1.8 billion in additional funding.
Proponents say the F-35 engine market is worth $100 billion in the longer term, and competition will force both suppliers to lower their prices. A second engine would also be an insurance policy in case of a problem that might otherwise ground the entire F-35 fleet.
GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said the second engine had strong continued bipartisan support in both houses of Congress despite the Obama administration’s veto threat.
“The case for a potential $20 billion in savings through competing JSF engines is compelling,” he said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week included no funding for the engine in its version of a 2011 Defense Department spending bill, siding with the White House and Pentagon. The matter still faces a vote in the full Senate.
House-Senate differences on the matter will have to be resolved before a final bill can be sent to Obama.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Leslie Adler and Tim Dobbyn