WASHINGTON — Congress and the White House are heading toward a showdown over the future of the F-22 jet fighter, as the Senate plans to consider adding seven more of the planes while the Obama administration warns that a veto is likely over the issue.
"If the final bill presented to the president contains this provision, the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto," said a "Statement of Administration Policy" last week that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated Monday.
Senate Armed Services Committee members, who also defied their own congressional leaders on the question, are moving ahead anyway, however. The panel on Thursday narrowly approved $1.75 billion for seven F-22s in the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, which the full Senate is expected to take up when it returns in July.
"It is regrettable that the administration needs to issue a veto threat for funding intended to meet a real national-security requirement that has been consistently confirmed by our uniformed military leaders," argued Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a committee member.
Pentagon Secretary Robert Gates' effort to end production of the F-22 at 187 planes is part of an ambitious overhaul of military spending practices that he unveiled this spring.
The Senate's action was the second rebuff to that plan in recent days. The House of Representatives voted last week on a fiscal 2010 defense-authorization bill that included a down payment to build a dozen more planes.
The Pentagon reacted sharply Monday.
"There is simply no military need for F-22s above and beyond the 187 Secretary Gates has recommended and President Barack Obama has requested," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
He also questioned the inclusion of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, contained in the House and Senate versions of the bill, saying that Gates "views attempts to add any of those items to the department's budget as a big problem."
While the F-22 is an Air Force favorite and a staple of its fleet, Gates has dubbed the plane "a niche, silver-bullet solution required for a limited number of scenarios." He prefers the F-35, which has more advanced stealth and air-to-ground capability.
The secretary is up against strong local interests, however. Contractors have estimated that halting the planes now ordered could cost 95,000 jobs in 46 states, figures that Gates disputes.
The plane is built by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. with help from Boeing as principal subcontractor and engines from Pratt & Whitney. California, Florida, Georgia and Connecticut are among the states that benefit from the work.
The Senate committee's approval of seven more F-22s came even though its top two members, Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., were opposed.
The fight, McCain said, isn't over yet.
"We will not give up on opposing the F-22," he vowed. The fight, though, is not only with lawmakers and powerful Washington interests but also with some Air Force commanders.
In a letter June 9 to Chambliss, Gen. John Corley, the commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, wrote: "In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term." The Air Force has recommended in recent years that twice that many planes be built.
That argument has prevailed so far, though some members of Congress are trying to curb production.
"We are far and away the most superior air force in the world. Why would we pour billions more into an area where we already dominate and continue to support an aircraft that is not suited to the current battlefields in which we fight?" asked Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
"We have to invest in low-tech equipment such as unmanned drones, which are effective in those areas of conflict."
The winning argument was the one offered by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, however.
"This decision on the F-22 will have profound implications on our nation's strength and air dominance 15 and 20 years from now," he said, warning that "other nations, notably Russia and China, will be "fielding advanced fighter aircraft in the next two years."
(Steven Thomma and Carrie Wells contributed to this story.)
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