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Pentagon moves to stop work on second engine

Makers of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, GE and Rolls Royce, vow to keep the program alive until supporters in Congress can weigh in again.

The Pentagon sidestepped Congress on Thursday and moved to shut down work at least temporarily on the controversial alternate engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

But the years-long fight over the F-35 engine--an international market estimated to be worth $110 billion--does not appear to be over, as the engine's makers and supporters on Capitol Hill said they will push to keep the program alive.

Indeed, General Electric and Rolls Royce, who produce the engine, vowed just minutes after the Pentagon issued the 90-day stop-work order to dig into their own pockets to keep the program alive until Congress has another chance to weigh in on the issue.

"We feel so strongly about this issue, as do our congressional supporters, that we will, consistent with the stop-work directive, self-fund the F136 program through this 90-day stop-work period," General Electric said in a statement.

The White House and the Pentagon have voiced strong opposition to the engine, saying the Defense Department cannot afford to fund the program, which requires another $2.9 billion to continue development and begin initial production. Pratt & Whitney builds the primary engine.

"In our view, it is a waste of taxpayer money that can be used to fund higher departmental priorities, and should be ended now," said the Pentagon statement announcing the stop-work order.

But the program's supporters stress that ongoing competition for the lucrative fighter engine will ultimately bring down costs and yield a better, more reliable product. The Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy are all buying the F-35 to replace older fighters, as are several U.S. allies.

In issuing the stop-work order, defense officials seized on lagging support on Capitol Hill, where budgetary pressures are helping to turn the tide against the engine. Last month, the House-where support for the engine has been steadfast and strong-voted 233-198 to delete $450 million in fiscal 2011 for the program.

"In light of these recent events, congressional prerogatives, and the administration's view of the program, we have concluded that a stop-work order is now the correct course," the Pentagon said. The stop-work order will remain in effect pending the "final resolution of the program's future, for a period not to exceed 90 days."

But the House vote never became law, and the stopgap continuing resolution now funding the government has kept money flowing to the engine.

Any effort to shut down the program without official congressional approval, the engine's supporters say, circumvents Congress and its power of the purse.

"The views of the president and Secretary Gates are well known on this topic, but those opinions-however strong-are not the law," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., one of the engine's biggest proponents, said on Thursday. "The secretary should follow current law and not preempt the congressional deliberation process by yanking funding after a single amendment vote."

McKeon added that he will "explore all legislative options available" to keep the engine alive.

The House Armed Services Committee has been the most vocal supporter of the alternate engine, battling for years to keep the program alive despite opposition from the administration and the military. Top senators, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin<, D-Mich., and Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, back the second engine, but the chamber is on record opposing it.

General Electric, which has intensified its lobbying push since the House vote, said the firm is disappointed the Pentagon "took this unilateral action before Congress has completed its work on the fiscal year 2011 budget."