WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's campaign against a costly alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation fighter jet faces a critical vote in the GOP-controlled House, its fate to be decided by more than 90 freshmen lawmakers who previously haven't had to choose sides between two major defense companies.
The expected vote Wednesday comes as the House enters its second day of debate on a $1.2 trillion spending bill that would make deep cuts while wrapping up the unfinished business lawmakers inherited after last year's collapse of the budget process. That includes $1.03 trillion for agency operating budgets that need annual approval by Congress and $158 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The engine battle pits Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who say the engine would waste almost $3 billion over the next few years — against GOP leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose state is a chief beneficiary. The spending measure includes $450 million for the engine, which would be built by the General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and other states.
On the other side are lawmakers from Connecticut, where the main F-35 fighter engine is built by Pratt & Whitney, as well members from Florida, Texas and other states.
The F-35 engine vote presents 87 GOP freshmen — infused with a fervor to cut spending — with a dilemma: Vote with the Obama administration to cut spending now or side with supporters of the alternative engine, who argue that it would save money by injecting competition into the F-35 program, the costliest weapons program in Defense Department history.
"We have to step forward, we have to cut back on areas, and this is an area that the secretary of defense said we need to cut back on," freshman Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., said.
The engine battle divides along regional rather than party lines, in contrast to the partisan warfare on the underlying bill, which sharply cuts domestic programs and foreign aid and earned a veto threat from the White House budget office and a warning from President Barack Obama against unwise cuts "that could endanger the recovery."
Debate on the bill is expected to take all week; the House worked late into Tuesday night. A frosty reception awaits the bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which won't take up its version until next month. So it'll require passage of a separate short-term government funding bill by March 4 to prevent a government shutdown that neither side says it wants.
The GOP bill, separate from the 2012 budget Obama unveiled on Monday, covers spending for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
The GOP legislation would make sweeping cuts to domestic programs ranging from education and science to agriculture and the Peace Corps. It slashes the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of Republicans, by 29 percent from last year's levels, and would eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, the AmeriCorps national service program, police hiring grants and family planning programs unpopular with conservatives.
The Food and Drug Administration budget would decline by 10 percent, and spending also would fall by 10 percent for a food program for pregnant women and mothers and their children.
The cuts are all the more dramatic because they would be shoehorned into the last half of the budget year that started Oct. 1.
The bill marks the first significant attack on federal deficits by Republicans elected last fall with the support of smaller-government tea party activists.
The measure came to the floor just a day after Obama unveiled his budget for next year and is merely a first round in what looms as a politically defining struggle that soon will expand to encompass Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the massive government programs that provide benefits directly to tens of millions of people.
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