House Kills F-35's Second Engine

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The F-35 alternate engine tests its afterburner / GE photo

The pork on Capitol Hill turned rancid as the House struck a blow for using the defense budget for defense — and not for jobs — Wednesday afternoon. That’s because it voted 233-198 against $450 million in funding for a second engine for the F-35 warplane.

It’s a switch from last year’s vote and shows that even the Pentagon isn’t immune to tightening federal coffers. What’s more surprising is that last year’s pro-second-engine vote came when the House was under Democratic control. Wednesday’s vote came in the now-GOP-controlled House, suggesting that Republicans — long viewed as being more pro-Pentagon than Democrats — see budget cuts as more vital than dubious military spending. Nonetheless, the move is a blow to House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, whose state would garner thousands of jobs from building the engine.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the second engine “an unnecessary and extravagant expense, particularly during a period of fiscal contraction.” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the vote should lead the House to “further scrutinize defense, entitlements and tax expenditures.”

The Pentagon has argued for years that it needs only a single manufacturer — in this case, Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney — to build a power plant for the single-engine warplane. But boosters of General Electric’s competing design (teamed with Rolls-Royce) from GE strongholds in Ohio and Massachusetts have been playing the competition card to develop and fund their alternate engine. GE vowed to continue to fight for the program, which faces tough sledding in the Senate as well as a threatened veto from President Obama if it is included as part of the defense bill.

Building two engines will keep costs down due to competition, the second-engine backers maintain. It also would ensure the warplanes could keep flying if some flaw turned up in one engine design that forces the fleet with that engine to be grounded. While there is some merit to each notion, Pentagon officials have argued that the cost of developing the second engine — some $3 billion — isn’t worth the added cost.