House agrees to cut F-22s

Its 379-43 vote means fighters approved by Senate hang in limbo

Opposition `overwhelming'

July 23, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives voted yesterday to eliminate funding for the next six F-22 Raptor fighter planes, thrusting the Air Force's most coveted new weapon system into limbo.

By a vote of 379-43, the House approved a $266 billion defense spending plan that omits $1.8 billion the Pentagon had wanted for buying the planes next year.

The measure also would put a halt on two F-22s the Pentagon agreed to buy this year from lead contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda.

Though $1.2 billion remains in the House-approved budget for continuing to develop the F-22, contractors, the Air Force and President Clinton have argued that zeroing out money to build the planes would kill the $62.7 billion program.

The Senate has approved full funding of $3 billion for the F-22 for next year, so the issue will be addressed this summer by House and Senate budget negotiators.

"The House has spoken in very overwhelming numbers," said California Republican Jerry Lewis, who led the effort to cut the funding. "I think the vote on final passage of the bill was the vote on the F-22. There's little doubt that was the whole focus."

The outcome was so certain that F-22 supporters mounted only token resistance yesterday. Republican Bob Barr, whose Georgia district includes the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta where the F-22 is assembled, submitted an amendment to restore funding but withdrew it after an hour of debate.

Later, Barr said he had not intended the amendment to come to a vote and simply wanted to give F-22 supporters a chance to mount their defense. "We had to lay out the record and build the case for the conferees," Barr said.

He said Lewis had assured him that the goal was not to kill the program, and both men said they expect to spend the next few weeks hashing out the future of the F-22 and the Air Force as a whole.

Lewis, since he introduced the cut last week in the defense appropriations subcommittee that he chairs, has said he wants to send a message to the Air Force that it needs to put money into new priorities for a future of tight budgets and post-Cold War threats.

"We are looking for a serious response from the Air Force as to how we can develop these programs and make sense out of our conflicting budgetary needs," Lewis told the House yesterday.

The Pentagon has defended the plane -- which is designed to have an unprecedented combination of stealth, speed, agility and advanced electronics -- as necessary for controlling the air against all possible future opponents, much as today's F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters recently dominated Yugoslavia.

"It's ironic, it seems to me, that coming out of what's been called the most successful air engagement in history, that Congress would even contemplate denying us the hardware that would allow us to maintain this dominance well into the next century," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said yesterday.

Lockheed Martin spokesman James Fetig said the company was "disappointed" by the House action but added, "We remain convinced that when the conferees meet later this summer they will uphold the president's request" and restore the money.

Nearly two dozen members of Congress spoke in favor of restoring money to the F-22 yesterday, compared with fewer than a half-dozen who argued for the cut. Most aircraft backers knew that the cut had deep support, though, and addressed their arguments to the budget conferees who will tackle the issue with the Senate.

If the F-22 is canceled, "we cannot guarantee air superiority in future conflicts," said Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. "Our first priority should always be the long-term security and safety of America's families. I urge my colleagues to address this critical issue in conference in the days and weeks ahead."

Connecticut Democrat John B. Larson told of visiting Langley Air Force Base, Va., this week and talking to F-15 pilots who he said could not understand why Congress wanted to deprive them of what all agree would be the finest fighter in the world.

"For them this is not some frill, this is not some back-bench item. This is an everyday priority," he said.

Larson also complained that he would have to explain to workers at the Pratt & Whitney plant in his district that they could lose their jobs building engines for the F-22.

Party distinctions evaporated during the debate, with most of the F-22 supporters who spoke representing states with ties to the program: Connecticut for the engines; and Georgia, Texas and Washington for construction of major parts of the planes.

But California Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham said he wanted to cut money for the F-22 even though it might mean jobs lost in his district.

He argued that it is more important to use the $1.8 billion to address deficiencies that are eating at the Air Force's ability to do its job. The House spending plan calls for putting that money into new F-15s, F-16s and KC-130J tanker planes; a Joint STARS surveillance plane; and bonuses to help retain Air Force pilots.

Spreading that wealth is one reason the measure has found broad support. Noting the way the conflict in Kosovo strained military resources, Wisconsin Democrat David R. Obey said it no longer makes sense to concentrate huge sums of money in the Cold War-era F-22.

Calling the program a "cancer eating a hole in the ability of the Air Force to meet other important needs," Obey said the F-22 is "like a Jaguar or a Cadillac. It would be a great plane to have if we had all the money in the world. But the problem is, its costs are taking off faster than the airplane is."

Pub Date: 7/23/99

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