By Marina Malenic

The Senate agreed by voice vote yesterday to an amendment that eliminates funding from the 2010 defense authorization bill for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine.

President Obama has threatened to veto the Pentagon spending legislation if it contains money for the Rolls-RoyceGeneral Electric [GE]-built F136 engine or for additional F-22 fighter jets. The Senate has backed the administration on both issues this week.

The upper chamber voted yesterday to remove $439 million that had been allocated for the engine effort from its version of the bill.

The Senate earlier this week removed $1.75 billion designed for additional F-22 fighters. Defense Secretary Gates has pushed for an end to the F-22 line as the new F-35 is phased into production.

In a letter delivered to Senate leaders on Tuesday, Gates wrote that “further expenditures on a second engine are unnecessary and will likely impede the progress of the overall F-35 program.” He said the current engine, the Pratt & Whitney [UTX]-manufactured F135, “is performing well with more than 11,000 test hours.”

However, many lawmakers have continued to support development of the F136. General Electric is the lead manufacturer on the program with its partner Rolls-Royce.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), whose state is home to Pratt & Whitney, sponsored the amendment to remove the funds. He said proponents of an alternate engine were “trying to achieve through legislation what they could not achieve through competition.” According to Lieberman, the alternate engine would cost some $6 billion to develop and produce, and could end up forcing the Pentagon to buy fewer airplanes as program costs escalate.

The Pentagon is poised to buy about 3,000 of the fifth generation fighters, 600 of those for allied countries. Variants are expected to be produced for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

The House version of the defense authorization bill and the House Appropriations Committee’s (HAC) version of the defense spending bill still contain some $369 million for new F-22s. As for the JSF alternate engine, the House version of the authorization bill sets aside $603 million and HAC recommended $560 million. The funding differences will ultimately be resolved in conference.

The vote to remove the engine funds was bipartisan. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued in favor of the GE engine, as did Sen. Evan Bayh (D- Ind.). They cited the benefits of competition in pricing.

“By 2030, the fighter will make up the vast majority of our tactical air fleet,” Bayh said. “Ensuring competition now over the life of this is good government and sound management practice.”

A GE spokesman said via e-mail that the F136 funding battle is “far from over.”

“The argument for an engine competition for the JSF, the largest fighter program in U.S. history, is simply too compelling,” said Rick Kennedy. “The F136 development program, which is 70 percent complete, has been executed on schedule and on cost.”

Pratt & Whitney applauded the Senate’s decision.

“For more than eight years, Pratt & Whitney has worked to produce the highest quality, most cost effective engine to meet the diverse requirements of the F-35,” said spokeswoman Erin Dick. “Pratt & Whitney continues to agree with the Department of Defense position, fully supported by the President of the United States, that an alternate engine for the F-35 is neither required nor affordable.”

Pentagon officials have said that the market for F-35 engines is expected to be worth some $100 billion over several decades.