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Gates Calls, Doesn't Raise On F136

The House Armed Services Committee raised its bet yesterday on the F136, second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, committing the House to a system Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly promised to recommend a presidential veto. Gates called the HASC today at his press conference, but he did not raise. We are where we were. He will recommend a veto and last year that meant President Obama did not take the bold step of vetoing the defense policy bill.

Gates sounded tough today, saying he had spoken with the president before issuing his threat to recommend a veto. "I try not to climb too far out on a limb without knowing nobody is back there with a saw," he said. But a recommendation to someone, even the president of the United States, just isn't the same as a direct threat from the president himself.

Gates also bowed to the congressional perennial hunger to raise troop pay. If Congress boosts pay half a percent over the administration’s budget request then he will not recommend a veto.

But Gates kept up the rhetoric. “I believe the defense budget process should no longer be characterized by business as usual within this building or outside of it,” the secretary said. “We in [the Defense Department] must make tough choices and decisions to ensure that current and future military combat capabilities can be sustained in a time of budget stringency.”

The defense secretary is entering a difficult period. When he presented the 2011 budget, he was a Republican holdover bolstering an untested Democratic presidency. He executed a masterly series of maneuvers, worthy of a former spymaster. He cut Congress and the people out of the information loop by requiring senior officials to sign nondisclosure agreements. He came out on April 6 -- before the budget release -- and announced a package of preemptive cuts. But now he is a short-timer, facing the end of his service. While Republicans may not take over control of the House or Senate, the current congressional leaders are likely to lose many followers, and some of them may fall as well.

And Obama has clearly calculated that vetoing the defense bill may not be worth his capital. I say that because when it came to the F-22, Obama made the veto threat absolutely clear. While he didn't say it this way, the intent was clear: if you include funding for that plane, I will veto it. And Congress caved. Don't expect that to happen this time on the F136 as long as defense bill goes to a an up or down vote. The House and Senate professionals who advise the defense leaders are deeply committed to the F136, arguing the country cannot afford the risk attendant with relying on only one engine for almost all top American fighter aircraft.

Even so, Pratt & Whitney, maker of the engine of record known as the F135, clearly smells blood. "We strongly agree with Secretary Gates who today reiterated the Department of Defense and the Obama Administration's opposition to congressional funding of an extra engine for the Joint Strike Fighter (F35). Secretary Gates' position on ending this wasteful spending has been consistent, clear and straight forward: The DoD has stated repeatedly that it doesn't want it, doesn't need it and can't afford it," said Erin Dick, a company spokeswoman.

And there is some weakness in the F136's support. Should the engine come to a floor vote, there is some chance it might fail should the administration mount a frontal assault. As Dick pointed out in her message, their colleagues in the Senate once voted against the engine: "A loud message was sent from the Senate last year during a roll call vote on the extra engine funding issue. A bipartisan group of 59 Senators voted against it. However, the funding was slipped back in during conference by certain House conferees. The first-ever full House floor consideration of the extra engine funding in the FY 2011 defense authorization bill is expected next week, and it is our hope that the House of Representatives will support the President, the DoD and our military men and women by ending this unnecessary program."

The folks at GE and rolls Royce were quick to respond.

"A competitive engine process is far better than a $100 billion monopoly to a sole-source provider. It’s just common sense. And a DoD official even acknowledged this week while testifying in a House hearing that no engine competition in the JSF program ever occurred, a fact we have been pointing out for years," said George McLaren, Rolls Royce spokesman.

The lobbyists will be wearing out their Gucci shoe leather, the spokesmen will be going hoarse and the consultants will be getting rich over this battle. And it will all play out in the shadow of a Gates whom everyone knows will be leaving fairly soon.

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