House votes to cut alternate F-35 engine backed by speaker

In a significant victory for the Pentagon, the House voted 233-198 Wednesday to ax the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter second-engine program that the White House and military have long contended is unnecessary and too costly.

The much-anticipated vote came after both sides mounted a fierce lobbying battle, focusing particularly on wooing budget-conscious House freshmen, who were considered key.

Wednesday's vote, which came as an amendment to legislation funding the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year, marks a strong reversal for the House, which has long supported the engine, most recently voting in May to authorize funding for it.

After campaigning for days, both sides said before the vote that it was simply too close to call.

The last time the House voted on this issue, alternate engine backers -- who include House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and most of the members of the House Armed Services Committee -- won by 38 votes.

Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, which builds the stealth fighter's primary engine, has seized on the Pentagon's assertions that the second engine would cost $2.9 billion to complete development and begin initial production - money that could be better spent. General Electric and Rolls Royce, which are developing the second engine with plans to build it in Ohio, assert that the actual cost would be less than $2 billion; the companies countered that competition would ultimately reduce costs and improve the product, while also blocking Pratt & Whitney from having a monopoly on the $100 billion market.

The battle between the Pentagon and Congress over funding for the alternate engine dates back to the George W. Bush administration, which first sought to end the program in its fiscal 2007 budget request.

The House, with its high-profile supporters of the alternate engine, had been the most steadfast supporter. The Senate voted in 2009 to cancel it, but funding was restored during conference negotiations with the House.

In a statement Wednesday, General Electric said it is not giving up on its battle to keep funding alive for the engine. "We will continue to press the case for competition as the fiscal 2011 budget is finalized and as the fiscal 2012 budget debate continues," the firm said.

Just before the vote, Defense Secretary Robert Gates restated his case against the engine at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, arguing it was an "unnecessary and extravagant expense" during an era of fiscal belt-tightening.

At the hearing, the chairman of the Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., accused the Pentagon of improperly lobbying lawmakers to oppose the engine in an information paper circulated this week. Gates said he was "not aware" of the document and would review it to see if the Pentagon crossed any ethical or legal boundaries.

Meanwhile, as number of proposed amendments to the House continuing resolution climbed to almost 600, the House voted on 14 other amendments including a proposal from Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., that would remove $400 million from the Afghan construction fund to reduce the deficit.

House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., is advising members to plan for the possibility that finishing the continuing resolution to fund government for the remaining months of fiscal 2011 will not be done by 3 p.m. on Thursday as planned.

Cantor says it remains his "intention" that all legislative action on the CR be completed on Thursday. But his office notes that already there has been more than 10 hours of debate -- with hundreds of Republican and Democratic amendments filed under the open process being used for consideration of the bill to go.

"Members are advised, however, that nearly 300 amendments relate to the end of the bill and we are not yet to that point," stated Cantor's advisory memo to members.

According to the calendar released in December, the House is not scheduled to be in session on Friday, heading into what will be a President's Day district work week away from Washington.

Other amendments defeated included a bid from Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., to eliminate $1.5 billion for Iraqi security forces fund. The amendment failed 299-133.

The House approved an additional $80 million for the Economic Development Administration. The amendment, offered by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, passed 305-127.

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