WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. John McCain, in an uncommon alliance with the Obama administration, is squaring off against fellow Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee colleague Saxby Chambliss of Georgia in a fight against adding $1.75 billion in funding to expand the F-22 Raptor jet fighter production line.
It's a showdown that pits the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers against a faction of military leaders, airmen who favor the F-22 and members of Congress whose districts benefit from the aircraft's construction. The face-off is also a test of the Obama administration's ability to shift spending priorities in the massive Pentagon budget.
A provision in the $679.8 billion defense authorization bill calls for spending $1.75 billion to build seven additional F-22 fighter jets. Gates opposes the measure and instead wants to cap production of the F-22 at 187 and replace the planes, parts of which are manufactured in Georgia, with the F-35, which has parts produced in Texas. Both planes are built by Lockheed Martin.
Gates said he has "a big problem" with congressional efforts to boost funding for the Air Force's F-22, which he called "a niche, silver-bullet solution required for a limited number of scenarios."
The F-35, on the other hand, would serve the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
The White House agrees and this week renewed a threatened veto of legislation that includes increased funding for F-22 production.
"As Secretary Gates and the military leadership have determined, we do not need these planes," President Barack Obama wrote Monday in a letter to McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman. McCain and Levin have an amendment to cut the extra F-22 funds.
"To continue to procure additional F-22s would be to waste valuable resources that should be more usefully employed to provide our troops with weapons that they actually do need," Obama wrote. "I urge you to approve our request to end production of the F-22."
The Senate could vote on the defense bill this week. Last month, the House approved a version of the defense bill that includes $369 million as a down payment on 12 additional F-22s. If the Senate version passes, they'll have to reconcile those differences.
Chambliss criticized Obama's veto threat and said the Pentagon's decision was driven by budgetary pressures, puts the nation at risk from future military threats and will result in huge job losses.
"I admire Secretary Gates, but it is the duty and obligation of members of Congress to question his recommendations," Chambliss said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Only the Congress can decide what to do with the nation. . . . Congress is the branch of government most directly connected to the American people. We have a crucial role in the budget process."
The Georgia senator's view is backed by Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, the director of the Air National Guard, and Gen. John Corley, the commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command.
"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," Corley wrote last month in a letter to Chambliss.
McCain said that he's "not without sympathy for parts of the country, including the state of Georgia," that will lose jobs. However, he said, "we cannot argue that we can spend taxpayer dollars for weapon systems just to create jobs."
Gates has estimated that the F-22 produces about 24,000 jobs. By the time the last fighter comes off the assembly line in two years, he said, that figure would drop to about 13,000. Opponents, however, said the employment figures are much higher.
Lockheed Martin, which is based in Bethesda, Md., and produces both the F-22 and the F-35, has publicly stepped back from the skirmish.
This week, however, the company defended the F-22's performance after the Air Force disputed media reports of Pentagon tests that found the fighter jets need 30 hours of upkeep for every hour of flying time. The Pentagon tests also reportedly found that just over half of the fleet has been available for missions in the past five months, and the planes haven't been used in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Nancy A. Youssef and Thomas Day of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., contributed to this article.)
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