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All eyes on freshmen for fighter engine vote

Deficit-conscious Republicans could prove pivotal in decision over whether to keep alive or kill the controversial F-35 alternate engine.

The budget battle scheduled for the House floor next week over whether to keep alive or kill the controversial alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be an interesting test case for deficit-conscious Republican freshmen.

Despite strong objections from the White House, the fiscal 2011 defense spending bill -- which is expected to serve as a vehicle for a continuing resolution funding other government agencies -- will almost certainly include $450 million for the second engine, sources tracking the issue said this week.

While the ink is not yet dry on the spending measure, congressional opponents of the engine, led by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., already are readying an amendment to strike that funding, and they see the new class of freshmen as their best bet at reversing the House's long-standing support for the program.

Indeed, the votes cast by the new class of Republicans could help put to rest a perennial battle between Congress and the Pentagon over whether competition for the fighter engine is a money-saver or a prime example of wasteful congressional spending.

General Electric and Rolls Royce would build the second engine in Ohio, while Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney is under contract to build the primary engine for the Lockheed Martin fighter jet.

The clash between the Pentagon and Congress over the engine dates back to George W. Bush's administration. Opponents of maintaining the second engine cite the $2.9 billion needed over the next six years for development and initial production. Supporters stress the long-term financial benefits of competition, as well as their desire to prevent Pratt & Whitney from having a monopoly on the $100 billion fighter engine market.

Most Republican leaders, including House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., have supported the second engine -- a stance that would put GOP freshmen, should they choose to strike funding for the program, at odds with their leadership for a high-profile vote.

Lawmakers and lobbyists on both sides of the debate have been vying for the support of the freshman class, who are not yet on the record on the issue and will undoubtedly be a pivotal factor in the outcome of the vote. In May, the House defied a White House veto threat and voted 231 to 193 to keep the engine alive during debate on the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill.

"There are a lot of new freshmen who campaigned on spending cuts and on fiscal accountability," Rooney spokesman Michael Mahaffey said on Wednesday. "This is going to be a good test for them."

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., who will back the amendment, said he sees funding for the second engine as a "vulnerability," considering the platform of fiscal austerity embraced by Republican freshmen. "How does [keeping the engine in the budget] hold up to everything they campaigned on?" Larson asked in a brief interview on Wednesday.

Pratt & Whitney is building its case that the Defense Department does not need or want to invest billions in the second engine program. "The lobbyists are out pressing the flesh," said Marty Hauser, director of government communications at United Technologies, Pratt & Whitney's parent company.

The crucial role of GOP freshmen is not lost on the General Electric/Rolls Royce team, either.

General Electric spokesman Rick Kennedy said the companies are "aggressively preparing" for the amendment, including meeting with nearly every new House member to explain the financial benefits of having two engines for the fighter jet, which will be flown by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as the militaries of several allies.

Considering the politics at play and the makeup of the new House, those for and against the engine say it is difficult to handicap the vote.

"It's hard to beat the collective leadership of the Appropriations Committee and the House," said one industry source who has followed the issue closely. But, the source added, "freshmen seem to understand this is what they've been sent here to do."