The Obama administration on Tuesday won a decisive victory in its public effort to end production of the Air Force's F-22 Raptor fighter jets after the 187 aircraft now on order.
By a 58-40 margin, the Senate approved an amendment to the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill that eliminates $1.75 billion added to the bill to buy seven more of the radar-evading fighter jets President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the military chiefs say they don't need to meet future security threats.
The vote on the amendment by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., came after days of delays because of partisan wrangling over nondefense issues.
But it appears the holdup gave Levin, McCain and the administration enough time to make their case against buying more of the Lockheed Martin-built fighters. McCain even acknowledged the vote was in doubt just a few hours before Tuesday's roll call.
"The size of this victory is directly attributable to the president of the United States and the secretary of Defense," McCain said. "We might have won, but not the way that we did" without the administration's support, he said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., observed after the vote that "a number of undecideds came our way and the White House helped."
At the White House, Obama said he was grateful for the Senate action, saying, "At a time when we're fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, this would have been an inexcusable waste of money."
"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," he said. "Our budget is a zero-sum game, and if more money goes to F-22s, it is our troops and citizens who lose."
Last week, Obama took the unusual step of informing lawmakers directly he would veto any bill that included more F-22 funding. Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen and Air Force leaders also signed letters supporting an end to F-22 production.
And in recent days, Gates, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other administration officials made calls to lawmakers, Levin said after the vote.
"I've never seen the White House lobby like they've lobbied on this issue," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the Senate's most vocal supporter of buying more F-22s, which are assembled at Lockheed Martin's plant in Marietta, Ga. "It's been unparalleled in my now 15 years as a member of the United States Congress."
The administration's victory is particularly noteworthy given the significant support on Capitol Hill for the fighters. With elements of the radar-evading fighters produced in 44 states, the program's boosters have claimed the program generates $12 billion annually in economic activity in the United States.
But Tuesday's vote is unlikely to end the fight over F-22s.
The House-passed version of the authorization bill includes a $369 million down payment for 12 F-22s in fiscal 2011, despite objections from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and most other Democrats on the panel. But with Tuesday's vote, Levin and McCain should be able to count on Skelton to help rid the final authorization bill of F-22 money not requested by the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled on Wednesday to consider its version of the fiscal 2010 Defense Appropriations bill, which has the same F-22 language as the House authorization bill.
And both Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has been absent for weeks due to illness, voted against the Levin-McCain amendment, an indication that they would support F-22 funding when their panel marks up the fiscal 2010 spending bill.
Dan Friedman and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this report.