House takes up F-35 bill

The House on Thursday began debate on the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill as the White House threatened to veto the measure if it continues a second engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon adamantly opposes the alternate engine.

In its Statement of Administration Policy, the White House objected to the $485 million in the bill for the second engine, as well as a provision that requires that future budgets include funding for the engine, developed by General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce Group.

"If the final bill presented to the president includes funding or a legislative direction to continue an extra engine program, the president's senior advisors would recommend a veto," the SAP states, echoing threats made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates over the last several months.

The administration also threatened to veto the bill if it contains any provisions that "would seriously disrupt the F-35 program," including language that could limit the procurement of the aircraft in the budget request.

The bill includes a number of restrictions for the program, including one that allows the Pentagon to obligate only enough funding to buy 30 of the 42 F-35 aircraft in the request until it meets projections for specific program milestones and objectives.

Lawmakers are expected to debate an amendment Thursday offered by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., that would strip the funding in the bill for the alternate engine and use it for deficit-reduction. Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney builds the primary engine for the jets.

The administration and opponents of the alternate engine argue that the $2.9 billion investment needed over the next six years is not worth the potential benefit of having two engine manufacturers for the F-35 program.

But supporters, including House Armed Services Committee leaders, stress that competition would save money in the long run - up to $20 billion over the life of the program - and a second engine would serve as a backup if there were problems with the primary engine.

It was unclear whether the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is marking up the authorization bill this week in closed session, would consider the engine issue.

Senate Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who opposes the second engine, said the engine is not in his subcommittee's markup of the bill.

And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., an alternate engine supporter, said he would not offer an amendment to add funding for the engine. But he did not rule out another senator doing so.

The alternate engine last year made it out of the Senate committee, but the Senate later overturned the funding during floor debate. It was added back during conference negotiations.

Rather than risking another floor vote, Levin acknowledged it may be better to fight the issue in conference. That strategy, however, hinges on the House keeping the funding in the bill.

"If it does [strike the funding], then that strategy doesn't work that well," Levin said.

Meanwhile, both the full House and the Senate Armed Services Committee are preparing for a vote to repeal the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law banning gays from serving openly in the military.

Under a compromise between the White House and Democrats, the repeal would go into effect after the Pentagon completes a review of the issue and certifies that overturning the law would not harm military readiness or hurt unit cohesion.

The House floor vote could come late Thursday or Friday, while the Senate Armed Services Committee will vote later Thursday.

Levin said he did not know whether he would open the historic vote to the public. "The goal is to get the bill done today," he said.

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