F-35 second engine under fire in spending debate

Cut-minded GOP freshmen are being tapped to help kill the program.

As the House begins debate on legislation to fund the remainder of the fiscal year, opponents of a provision allocating $450 million for the controversial "second-engine" program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are hoping to convince GOP freshmen to support their amendment to kill the funding.

A vote on the amendment could come Tuesday evening, said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., who sponsored the proposal. But it was unclear if the vote would get pushed back to Wednesday, giving the respective sides more time to lobby support.

"This is the poster child for wasteful spending," Rooney said of the second engine.

At a time when the push for spending cuts is approaching a frenzy, funding for a program opposed by both President George W. Bush when he was in office and by President Obama now -- and that the military says it does not need -- is extremely vulnerable. But the intensity and longevity of the debate are also evidence of the influence wielded by those lobbying for it who have a finanacial stake and by lawmakers who have a political stake is keeping the program going.

General Electric and Rolls Royce are developing the second engine for the fighter jet in Ohio, where it would be built, while Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney is under contract to build the primary engine for the fighter jet. The House Armed Services and Appropriations committees have continued to authorize and fund the second-engine program over the years, despite White House and Pentagon opposition. In the Senate, it also has the support of Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also both supported the program in the past.

Rooney said he hopes to win the support of many of the 87 GOP freshmen who were elected on promises to cut Washington spending. He said that his message to them has been, "Look, this is exactly why you were elected -- to get rid of this kind of wasteful spending that may have been OK in the past, but the people aren't having it anymore."

He has already won over two freshmen: Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., and Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., who are seeking signatures for a letter to President Obama that they plan to send on Wednesday.

"We applaud your opposition to the JSF alternate engine program and urge you to maintain your veto threat of any bill that seeks to reinstate the funding for this program," the letter said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday that he would be watching congressional debate this week on the alternate engine, which he called an "unnecessary and extravagant expense." Since the start of the fiscal year, the department has been funding the engine on a month-to-month basis -- to the tune of $28 million each month -- despite its stated desire to cancel the program.

Other backers of the amendment to kill the program include Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. Larson said his interest in the issue does is due in part to a desire to protect Pratt & Whitney jobs in his district, but insists that there is more to it than that.

"This becomes a question of prioritizing for the nation that two administrations, and the secretary of Defense, and every military entity has said they don't want it," Larson said. "They know that dollars are short and they have to prioritize."

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is also a cosponsor of the amendment.

"This is just a common sense issue," Pingree said. "The only reason it keeps getting funded people is because it's a giveaway to a powerful defense contractor who hires the lobbyist that keep it alive."

She added, "The current engine is built by world-class workers around the country, including some at the Pratt & Whitney plant in Maine. If a second engine is funded at least 40 percent of it would be built in the United Kingdom. A second engine wastes money and it sends jobs overseas."