Senators sparred during floor debate on the fiscal 2010 Defense spending bill Tuesday over whether to scrap $2.5 billion added by appropriators to the measure to buy 10 C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes the Obama administration says it doesn't want.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced an amendment to the $636.3 billion bill that would eliminate the add-on for the Boeing Co.-produced plane and redirect the money to the military's operations and maintenance accounts, from which appropriators trimmed $3 billion to pay for other priorities.
The relentless opponent of pork-barrel spending argued the funding cut from O&M accounts represents "critical sustainment money" for a military whose readiness rates have fallen to "truly worrisome levels."
By comparison, he said, buying more C-17s than the 205 ordered for the Air Force is something "we neither need nor can afford."
In a letter Tuesday to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the Obama administration's stance that the military does not need more C-17s to meet strategic airlift demands -- now and in the future.
Indeed, Gates wrote, initial findings in an ongoing review of military lift requirements show "the strategic balance will not fundamentally change." Buying more C-17s would simply increase operating costs at the expense of other priorities, Gates added.
McCain echoed the White House's stance on the additional planes. But he also encouraged President Obama to veto the Defense bill if it includes money to buy more C-17s, as the administration has threatened to do with the F-22 Raptor fighter jet and other programs it wants to end.
But the C-17s employ 30,000 people in 43 states and enjoy widespread congressional support. In the last several years, Congress has added 25 C-17s to the Air Force fleet, despite repeated attempts by the Pentagon to end the program.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii defended his support for more C-17s, arguing that it was the only major administration defense budget decision that he and Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chose to reverse.
The cargo planes are in high demand, and the military cannot afford to let the production lines shut down prematurely, Inouye said. Buying and maintaining additional C-17s is less expensive and a more effective means of supporting operations than modernizing the military's fleet of larger C-5 Galaxy aircraft.
"This is a critical decision and we have to be certain on our course," Inouye said. Restarting production of the planes after the lines shut down, he added, "would not be feasible or cost-effective."
Also Tuesday, the Senate approved by voice vote an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that would bar the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now from receiving government funding.
Johanns has attached similar ACORN amendments to the fiscal 2010 Transportation-HUD Appropriations measure and the fiscal 2010 Interior-Environment spending bill.