House and Senate Panels To Weigh F-35 Second Engine’s Fate

House and Senate Panels To Weigh F-35 Second Engine’s Fate

By Emelie Rutherford

The Pentagon-Capitol Hill clash over funding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s second engine will intensify today, when a Pentagon official will whip votes for an anti-engine amendment in the House and senators will weigh excluding the program from their defense bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) Airland subcommittee opted in a secret bill-writing session yesterday to not cast an up-or-down vote on whether to include the General Electric [GE]-Rolls-Royce F-35 alternate engine in the Senate’s defense policy bill. When the full SASC marks up the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill today and tomorrow, it is expected to weigh whether to leave the engine program out of the bill and potentially allow its fate to be decided by House- Senate negotiators.

Meanwhile, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) have been working to garner support in the House for Larson’s amendment to strike the alternate engine from the House version of the defense authorization bill. They will get some help today from Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, who is slated to travel to Capitol Hill early this morning to hold a briefing on the engine program the Obama administration wants to kill.

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After Carter’s briefing, the House Rules Committee will meet and decide whether to allow a House floor vote tomorrow on Larson’s amendment. The defense legislation approved last week by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) authorizes spending $485.1 million for the alternate engine effort Congress consistently funds over Pentagon objections.

"Congressman Larson is planning on introducing an amendment that would strip funding for the F-35 extra engine and re-allocate funds those funds to supply the equipment the National Guard and Reserves are desperately in need of," Larson’s spokeswoman said.

The amendment, whose fate rests with the Rules Committee, states no money for the alternate engine can be spent until the defense secretary certifies in writing that the development and procurement of the alternate engine will do and not do several things. It states the effort must "reduce the total life-cycle costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program; and…improve the operational readiness of the fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft." The engine program, the amendment states, must not "disrupt the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program during the research, development, and procurement phases of the program…(or) result in the procurement of fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft during the lifecycle of the program."

The amendment then calls for reallocating the $485.1 million for the engine effort in the bill to National Guard and Reserve equipment, as well as federal deficit reduction.

In the Senate, the full SASC is slated to begin its behind-closed doors markup of its version of the FY ’11 defense authorization bill today.

The SASC’s Airland subcommittee did not vote yesterday on the alternate engine program when it marked up its portion of the authorization bill, according to senators on the panel.

"The real vote will happen in the full committee," Airland subcommittee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) told Defense Daily. Lieberman, who opposes the second engine, added that his panel did approve some "language" regarding the engine effort.

"I’m against the second engine and I support (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates’ position, so there’s language in here that holds that up," he said.

The primary F-35 engine is made by Pratt & Whitney [UTX] in Lieberman’s state.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a second engine supporter, told Defense Daily his committee may not include the engine in its version of the authorization bill, and he may then try to win support for the program when a House-Senate conference committee meets to reconcile the bills passed by each chamber.

"It may not make sense to do it in the Senate," Levin said. "Since I’ve been always favoring the second engine, I want to do whatever I can to advance it. It may be better to leave to leave it to conference if the House is going to do it."

The Senate, he noted, voted against the second engine in a high-profile floor vote last year, but its authorization was restored in the final FY ’10 defense authorization bill in House-Senate conference committee.

"If we go to conference I’d rather go without a negative Senate position," Levin said. Last year, he officially was required to support the Senate’s opposition to the alternate engine in the conference committee, despite his support for the effort.

SASC Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.), in contrast, wants to kill the alternate engine.

SASC member Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who backs the second engine that is developed by Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis, said leaving the engine out of the Senate bill, and potentially deferring a decision on it to a conference committee, "may make more sense."

Bayh told Defense Daily he does not see Gates’ increased criticism of the alternate engine as a concern.

"I don’t think that will affect the dynamic here (in Congress) that much," he said.

Still, SASC member Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told Defense Daily she may not support the second engine, which she previously backed.

"I’m in favor of competition but I think this time I’m really thinking about it, because I’m just not sure that it’s worth the amount of money that we would have to spend on it," she said. "So we’ve got to look every place we can to save money….My first instinct is always to make sure we have competition. We may not be able to afford it in this instance."

McCaskill said her views are being influenced "by the debt and us having to get control of the debt."

Gates reiterated to reporters last week that he would "strongly recommend" President Barack Obama veto defense legislation if Congress adds unrequested funding for the alternate engine.

The HASC-approved bill highlights that a recent Pentagon analysis found the cost of developing both or just one F-35 engine would be roughly the same on a "net present value basis," and the panel also notes non-financial benefits to having two F-35 engines.

Gates said regarding "the argument that we should add another $3 billion to what we regard as waste to protect the $1.5 billion that we believe already has been wasted, frankly I don’t track the logic." He said Pentagon officials believe the alternate engine proposal "is based on unrealistic cost estimates: and its design may be flawed.

Levin expects the SASC to finish marking up the defense policy bill tomorrow.

The House and Senate appropriations committees have not yet unveiled their versions of the budget-setting defense appropriations bills.

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