White House threatens to veto defense bill

The alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is key point of contention.

The White House has threatened to veto the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill if it keeps the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on life support.

The administration, which has been involved in a long-simmering debate with Capitol Hill over the engine, delivered its veto threats on Tuesday afternoon, just as the House prepared to begin debate on the $690 billion authorization measure.

The bill does not authorize any funding for the alternate engine, but it contains policy measures aimed at keeping the program alive -- albeit at the expense of contractors General Electric and Rolls Royce. Pratt & Whitney builds the primary engine for the stealth fighter.

In its Statement of Administration Policy, the administration particularly took issue with language in the legislation to require the military to buy both engines if the Defense Department requires more power for the jets. The administration wrote that improvements to the engine are "likely to be needed," but argued that continuing to develop and procure the alternate engine would "destabilize" the F-35 program.

"If the final bill presented to the president includes funding or a legislative direction to continue an extra engine program, the president's senior advisers will recommend a veto," according to the SAP.

The White House also opposes language that requires the Defense Department to preserve the GE/Rolls Royce engines, arguing that it would add unnecessary costs. However, it does not appear that language could provoke a presidential veto of the sprawling defense bill.

Interestingly, the White House did not react to language added during the House Armed Services Committee's markup earlier this month that requires GE and Rolls Royce to have access to the government-owned engines and test facilities -- a provision that has been at the core of GE and Rolls Royce's lobbying efforts this year.

Over the last two administrations, the Pentagon has said the second engine is simply unaffordable and unnecessary. But supporters on Capitol Hill -- particularly on the House Armed Services Committee -- have countered that maintaining two engines would ultimately drive down costs and improve the product. The cancellation of the alternate engine, the committee has argued, would give Pratt & Whitney a lock on the $110 billion international market.

In a significant victory for the administration, lawmakers voted earlier this year to strike $450 million in funding for the second engine. Recognizing the political futility of persuading an increasingly deficit-conscious Congress to fund an expensive program the military doesn't want, GE instead pushed for access to the engines and test facilities. The firm has said it would dig into its own pockets to fund the program, which would cost upward of $100 million annually.

The House will begin debate on the authorization measure on Wednesday, but no new engine-related amendments have been drafted. To avoid a veto, any controversial provisions would have to be stripped out or watered down during conference negotiations with the Senate later this year.

As it heads to the floor, the bill carries other veto threats -- including language that the White House fears would tie its hands as it tries to implement the New START arms-reduction treaty with Russia. The provision, added to the bill during the markup, would delay full implementation of the treaty until after the secretaries of Defense and Energy update Congress on their plans to modernize the nation's nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear modernization was the key issue during negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans last year on New START. To assuage GOP concerns and get the 67 votes necessary for Senate approval of the treaty, the White House promised to spend $85 billion over the next 10 years on updating warheads and modernizing the nuclear weapons complex.

The White House has also threatened to veto the bill over a similar provision that would require the president to report to Congress before making any changes to the United States' nuclear employment strategy. That language, according to the White House, raises "constitutional concerns as it appears to encroach on the president's authority as commander in chief."

President Obama also might wield his veto pen if the final bill includes many of the committee-endorsed provisions on holding and prosecuting detainees, including language that prohibits the administration from transferring certain detainees held at the military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.

Congress has inserted similar provisions in other bills, but the White House said the authorization language "unnecessarily constrains our nation's counterterrorism efforts and would undermine our national security, particularly where our federal courts are the best -- or even the only -- option for incapacitating dangerous terrorists."