Tuesday’s strong Senate vote to halt production of the F-22 fighter breathes new life into Pentagon procurement reforms and provides a much needed boost for President Barack Obama’s larger change agenda.
A late-breaking White House lobbying campaign averted what could have been an embarrassing political setback, given Obama’s faltering support in recent polls and the uphill battle he now faces over health care reform.
Instead what emerged was a new message of three R’s: reform, fiscal restraint — and something rare for this White House: Republicans. Defense Secretary Robert Gates proved a major asset in drawing senators from both parties; as many as 15 Republicans joined 42 Democrats and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders in backing the president.
“The president really needed this vote, not just in terms of the merits of the F-22 itself but in terms of his reform agenda,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) told POLITICO: “We have got to be a leaner, meaner government. We have to be more efficient.”
The 58-40 margin marked a dramatic shift from only last week, when conventional wisdom held that the $1.75 billion authorization would easily survive a challenge on the floor. Going forward, even small sums for the plane are in doubt, and the F-22’s best hope may be foreign sales to Japan or some compromise to fund purchases of spare parts and engines for planes already ordered from Lockheed Martin.
“I’ve already talked to the Defense Department. I said, ‘See if we can come up with some language,’” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense panel. Just last week, Murtha budgeted $369 million as an advanced procurement down payment toward F-22 purchases, but he told POLITICO on Tuesday that is “obviously no longer in play ... They lost it by such a big margin.”
The full Appropriations Committee takes up the bill Wednesday, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) appears to be leaning toward backing Gates in any floor fight. Wasting no time, the grass-roots organization TrueMajority.org has an ad in the works urging Florida Rep. Bill Young, Murtha’s Republican counterpart, to vote against F-22 funding. “Be a lion, not a gopher for Lockheed Martin” is one line in the script.
The fight brings back memories of 20 years ago, when then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sought unsuccessfully to kill the V-22 Osprey helicopter. Cheney lost after fights with the Marine Corps, which was actively calling the program its No. 1 priority, as well as with Congress, which eventually restored funding for the program.
That, perhaps, was an easier fight for Congress to win, suggested Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, who also does consulting for defense companies. The V-22 was a research and development platform that required far less of an investment at the time — in the millions of dollars as compared to the $1.75 billion pulled out to fund just seven F-22 Raptors.
But Gates may have learned from his predecessor’s experience. He laid enormous groundwork on the F-22 within the Pentagon to head off in-house opposition from last summer, when he fired the Air Force’s top leadership over a nuclear stewardship issue. Defense sources say the F-22 was a key underlying sore point, and that firing sent a powerful message to the incoming leaders — Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz — who have gone on to support Gates’s position on the fighter.
In the run-up to the Senate vote, Gates was the public point man for the administration, making calls and delivering a toughly worded speech last week in Chicago. But as the stakes became more apparent, Obama and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel also jumped in on the phones, and last week Vice President Joe Biden called senators — including his old friend, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), an ardent F-22 backer.
A closely watched vote was Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), a past F-22 supporter who backed the administration after speaking with Gates on Monday. Kerry’s vote was all the more striking since his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Ted Kennedy, had cast a decisive vote in the Armed Services Committee for the F-22.
In seeking Gates out, Kerry said part of his motive was to address concerns raised by Massachusetts Guard forces about the state of their own equipment in a tight defense budget. In his own remarks after the vote, Obama stressed too that defense spending is now “a zero-sum game” and the F-22 an “inexcusable waste of money” at a time when the U.S. is “fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit.”
Yet for some Democrats, it was a foolish fight for Obama to elevate so high, with early, bluntly worded veto threats that left little room for compromise. Amid the troubled economy, F-22 supporters said thousands of aerospace jobs were being put in jeopardy for what is really a small percentage of the defense budget.
“That’s two-tenths of 1 percent of the budget before us,” said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, whose home state of Connecticut has a major stake in the manufacturing of F-22 engines. “We’re told that there are at least 25,000 direct jobs and 95,000 direct and indirect jobs at stake for $1.75 billion, or 0.2 percent of this budget. ... We’re about to put that many jobs across our country at risk.”
Adding to the emotions was the return of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has been absent since this spring because of illness but returned to cast his vote for the F-22, a statement of loyalty to Dodd.
Retired Gen. Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association, which lobbied unabashedly for F-22 production, said he wasn’t yet convinced the F-22 is “necessarily dead.” Dunn sees a parallel to the American experience with another costly weapon: the B-1 bomber.
“There have been countless times when conventional wisdom said weapons were too expensive, but history proves those critics wrong,” Dunn said. “We’ve needed the B-1 many, many times since.”
But for Gates, the F-22 termination has become his signature issue in revamping the Pentagon budget to focus more on the immediate needs of wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, two theaters where the sophisticated stealth fighter has not been used.
The president’s July 13 letter threatening a veto was extremely significant, said David Berteau, who studies the defense industry for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it shows that they’re willing to escalate to a level that is pretty rare and perhaps unprecedented,” Berteau said.
“He would have been highly crippled if he lost this vote,” said one industry official. But Gates also backed up his confrontational style with an ability to count — and cultivate — swing votes.
“Gates gained a lot of credibility on his ability to count, identify and reach out to swing votes,” said John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World. Obama’s old rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), warmly praised both the secretary and the president for “standing up” on the issue.
“This amendment is probably the most impactful amendment that I have seen in this body on almost any issue, much less the issue of defense,” McCain told the Senate. “It really boils down to whether we’re going to continue business as usual, or once a weapons system gets into production it never dies.”