By Emelie Rutherford

The Senate set aside a contentious vote on buying F-22 jets because of a battle over unrelated legislation yesterday, while the White House again dubbed funds in the defense bill for F-22s and the F-35 alternate engine as veto bait.

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) yesterday morning withdrew the amendment he filed with panel Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) to strike from the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill $1.75 billion to buy seven Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 fighters. He plans to reintroduce the F-22 measure, perhaps early next week, after the Senate moves to vote on another controversial amendment to add a new definition of hate crimes to the defense bill.

The F-22 amendment was the first one the Senate considered for the Pentagon policy bill when debate started Monday.

Levin told reporters at the Capitol yesterday some Republicans would not allow the Senate to proceed to a vote on the F-22 amendment because they wanted an agreement that the hate-crimes amendment would not be considered as part of the defense authorization bill. Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats insisted the hate- crimes matter would be part of the debate because the defense bill is one of few pieces of legislation lawmakers know will pass.

So Democratic leaders made plans yesterday to use the cloture process to force a vote on the hate-crimes amendment. The cloture vote could come as soon as late tonight or shortly after midnight; alternatively, because no votes are planned for tomorrow, the Senate potentially could take up the vote on Saturday, Levin said.

“The only way…we could get moving on this bill is to deal with the impediment to move on it, which was the issue of the hate-crimes bill,” Levin said. “So that’s going to have to be resolved and then we’re going to come right back to (the) Levin-McCain” F-22 amendment.

McCain was upset and said it was “highly inappropriate” to use the defense bill for the hate-crimes legislation.

Asked if the hate-crimes matter will impact the defense bill’s passage, Levin noted the provision previously passed the chamber. The Senate approved the defense authorization bill in 2007 with similar hate-crimes language, which was removed during negotiations with the House.

Meanwhile, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget released yesterday its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the SASC’s version of the defense authorization bill.

The statement says the administration “strongly objects” to the addition of $438.9 million in the bill for continuing development of the General Electric [GE]-Rolls-Royce second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and argues the “unnecessary” spending impedes the overall fighter program’s progress. The SAP, like a similar one issued for the House-passed bill, stops short of directly threatening a presidential veto over the alternate-engine funding, but says: “If the final bill presented to the President would seriously disrupt the F-35 program, the President’s senior advisers would recommend a veto.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) has crafted an amendment to strike the F-35 second-engine funds from the bill. The engine effort, though, has strong supporters including Levin.

As President Obama already said Monday in letters to Levin and McCain, the SAP says the president would veto the final bill if the F-22 funds are included.

The SAP for the House-passed defense authorization bill similarly suggests included funds for F-22s and the F-35 second-engine program could spur vetoes (Defense Daily, June 26).

Other parts of the Senate bill the new SAP takes issue with, without dubbing them as veto bait, include: a $324 million cut to the administration’s request for contract- termination fees for Future Combat Systems (FCS) manned ground vehicles, a similar reduction of $58 million in requested termination costs for the Non-Line of Sight Cannon program; provisions that prohibit the retirement of airlift aircraft; and changes to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s imagery satellite acquisition program.

Senators leading both sides of the F-22 debate–Levin and McCain against buying more F-22s and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in favor of the aircraft–portray themselves as facing an uphill battle (Defense Daily, July 15).

“It’s very much a neck-and-neck fight and every vote will definitely matter,” said Mandy Smithberger, a national-security investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

POGO had listed a tally of senators’ expected F-22 votes on its blog, but removed that list on Tuesday night, saying: “POGO has decided to remove the list of expected votes. The situation is extremely fluid, with a number of Senate offices changing their positions. Nonetheless, we now believe the race to be very close, and that every vote will count.”

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to speak on both sides of the debate.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said yesterday he supports the McCain-Levin amendment, noting that “whenever a fighter plane…is being discontinued there are people who resist it, because each one of these defense projects involve a lot of people, a lot of jobs, a lot of contracts that are important to businesses and families and communities.”

Durbin, though, emphasized Obama’s veto threat, and predicted the Senate could not muster a supermajority to override a potential Obama veto of the bill.

“It’s a promise or a threat from a president you have to take very seriously,” Durbin said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of Senate leadership, defended the F-22 on Tuesday night. She said the Levin-McCain amendment would “erode the health and long-term needs of our nation’s industrial base.”

“At a time when we are looking to create jobs and build the economy, eliminating the $12 billion in economic activity and thousands of American jobs that are tied to the F-22 production does not make sense to me,” Murray said. “Supporting continued F-22 production will help defend against potential threats, and, of course, it will protect family-wage jobs, and, importantly, it will preserve our domestic base.”