Obama may need veto threat to keep Gates tanker plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may have to use a veto threat to preserve Pentagon plans for a winner-take-all competition to start a new multibillion-dollar U.S. aerial-refueling fleet, the head of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee said on Monday.

“That is probably where we’ll start and end,” Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, said in reply to a question about moves in Congress that would guarantee Air Force purchases from both rival tanker suppliers -- Boeing Co and a team of Northrop Grumman Corp and Europe’s EADS.

Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, and other powerful lawmakers have endorsed a dual-source strategy as a means of jump-starting the long-delayed acquisition of an initial 179 new tankers valued at $35 billion.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who heads another subcommittee that oversees Air Force programs, says this may be the only practical way to break a political logjam.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has strongly opposed dividing the tanker acquisition, saying it would double combined development costs, to $14 billion.

Skelton, speaking at a defense-industry conference organized by Jane’s, a publisher of military-related material, declined to discuss his personal stance on dividing the tanker buy. The issue is due to figure in debate on Obama’s budget request for the 2010 fiscal year starting October 1. The detailed budget is due to be sent to Congress on Thursday.

Skelton said the outcome likely would hinge on whether the White House was prepared to throw down a gauntlet to back Gates on the matter, citing the high threshold -- a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate -- required to override a presidential veto.

“Very seldom is a veto overridden,” he said, referring to whether the dual-source idea gains further traction in Congress. “I think that’s what you should look for.”

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Air Force has been stymied in its two previous attempts to start replacing its KC-135 tankers, which average nearly 50 years old.

The first try, rooted in the post-September 11 collapse of the commercial airliner market, foundered amid a procurement scandal that sent two Boeing executives, one of them a former Air Force arms buyer, to prison for conflict-of-interest violations. Northrop won a competition in February 2008, but it was canceled after federal auditors upheld a Boeing challenge.

Gates has said he wants to launch a new, winner-take-all competition this summer and award a contract next year. The Air Force says new tankers are its top acquisition priority.

Momentum has been growing for the dual-source proposal in recent weeks. Both Boeing and Northrop have voiced support for the idea if the Pentagon changes course and ends up recommending it.

Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Steve Orlofsky