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First F136 Death Blow Near?

An important congressional supporter of the second engine for the Joint Strike fighter is "pessimistic" about the coming House floor vote on whether the engine should be funded in the House defense authorization bill. The reason for the supporter's pessimism is simple: the majority of House lawmakers know little about defense issues and the issues surrounding the F135, made by Pratt, and the F136, made by General Electric and Rolls Royce, are highly complex. So the vote will rest largely on coalitions, the interests of major donors and constituents and horse trading -- not on the merits of the issue.

The House vote on an amendment killing the F136 General Electric/Rolls Royce alternate engine program is expected Thursday. Democratic Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, where Pratt and Whitney is based, will sponsor the amendment that would strip F-136 funding from the main defense policy bill. Larson, the son of a Pratt employee, has told some in the House that he is under intense union pressure to act against the General Electric and Rolls Royce engine.

There are important tells to watch for. "A key will be how the amendment is structured -- either a straight up or down, or packaged with other budget items to further confuse and mislead a very complex issue," said GE spokesman Rick Kennedy in an email.

He also said that there is some effective lobbying going on by "A large body of Congressional members, including HASC leaders and others, such as Steve Driehaus..." They are, he said, These people are, he said, "doing a remarkable job of clarifying the real issues in this debate."

After the House casts its votes on the defense policy bill, all eyes will move to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, now headed by Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington. The views of Dicks, who may rise to the chairmanship of the whole committee when current chair Rep. David Obey of Michigan departs, on the F-136 are not well known. So far, the best indications are that he is willing to listen to the case for the F136 but he is not thought to be a stalwart supporter, as was his predecessor, the late Rep. Jack Murtha.

Until Thursday's vote, GE and Rolls Royce are pulling out every stop to meet senior congressional leaders and to count heads. Senior company leaders were not optimistic yesterday about securing a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but they and their colleagues are calling and emailing everyone they can find. As anyone who has worked on the Hill can tell you, working the halls to influence lawmakers can be effective for a small number of lawmakers, but it is highly inefficient.

Pratt & Whitney, eyes firmly on Capitol Hill as the House nears its floor vote, will tell the country tomorrow that it is delivering the first set of production F135 engines for the Joint Strike Fighter to the military. That will mark an important shift to the program. While it can easily be downplayed, the movement of a program from test to production requires the government to certify that the builder has satisfied a wide range of technical milestones.

Pratt has delivered 29 test engines.

Pratt has scheduled a press breakfast for tomorrow, featuring Dave Hess, company president, Warren Boley, military engines president and Bill Begert, VP of military business development and aftermarket services.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service has produced an excellent summary of the issues facing Congress as the House readies for the vote. The report concisely reproduces the principal arguments of most sides in the political and programmatic engine war and is excellent reading for anyone trying to think clearly about what will be at least a $62 billion investment for the country.

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