WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to strip $1.75 billion in increased spending for the F-22 jet fighter from the defense authorization bill after a protracted fight between the Obama administration, top Pentagon officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on one side and a faction of military leaders and members of Congress whose districts benefit from the aircraft's construction on the other.
Support for the amendment, which was approved 58-40, was seen as a test of the administration's ability to shift spending priorities in the massive Pentagon budget. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any defense spending measure that included additional money for the F-22. Last month, the House of Representatives approved a version of the bill that includes $369 million as a down payment on 12 additional F-22s. The two chambers will have to reconcile those differences.
In the Senate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in an unusual alliance with the Obama administration, faced off against fellow Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee colleague Saxby Chambliss of Georgia in the fight to remove a provision in the $679.8 billion defense authorization bill that called for spending $1.75 billion to build seven more F-22s.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also opposed the measure and wanted instead to cap production of the F-22 at 187 and to replace the planes, parts of which are manufactured in Georgia, with the F-35, which has parts produced in Texas. Lockheed Martin builds both planes.
Tuesday's vote was seen as a big victory for Gates, who made trimming the F-22 program the cornerstone of reshaping the nation's defense priorities.
"The fact that the F-22 program is no longer needed beyond where it stands today, that it is no longer wanted by the most senior civilian and uniformed officials in the Pentagon — exercising their best professional judgment — and that it is simply no longer affordable cannot be disputed," McCain said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "However, in the face of those facts, the full weight of all those interests that have — for a period of over 20 years — become invested in the survival of the program has been brought to bear on the decision-making process on this body today. That is the military-industrial-congressional complex at work."
Chambliss criticized Obama's veto threat and said the Pentagon's decision was driven by budgetary pressures, put the nation at risk from future military threats and would result in huge job losses.
"I've never seen the White House lobby like they've lobbied on this issue," Chambliss said Tuesday during the floor debate. "And for a White House that was not supposed to be a lobbying White House, it has been unparalleled in my now going on 15 years as a member of the United States Congress."
Lobbying efforts were fast and furious on both sides.
Chambliss was 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.
Earlier this month, Obama wrote a letter to McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman, urging them to help cut funding for the F-22s.
"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."
In the meantime, Lockheed Martin, which is based in Bethesda, Md., publicly stepped back from the skirmish.
However, the company defended the F-22's performance after the Air Force disputed news reports of Pentagon tests that found that the fighter jets need 30 hours of upkeep for every hour of flying time. The tests also reportedly found that just more than 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.
Proponents of more funding for the F-22s, who included lawmakers from the more than 40 states where the aircraft's parts are manufactured, were resolute after Tuesday's vote.
"The F-22 is the most sophisticated fighter jet in the world with the latest stealth technology to reduce detection by radar, and this plane is vital to 21st-century American military superiority," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "I'm extremely disappointed the Senate did not recognize how essential the continued production of this aircraft is to our national security as well as to the many local economies and thousands of workers that will be devastated as a result of these cuts."