But Peterson said she believes something else is also driving congressional interest in having GE and Rolls-Royce duplicate work already being done by Pratt & Whitney.
"It has been really promoted by lawmakers from the states where GE and Rolls Royce have their production plants," she said. "National security is too important to become another jobs program. And that is how Congress is treating this."
Generally, that is true. Key figures pushing the second engine have included Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, Sens. John F. Kerry (D) and Scott Brown (R), both of Massachusetts, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and Rep. Ike Skelton, (D-Mo.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Congressional leaders from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Massachusetts have all lobbied aggressively to make sure there was funding for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine, even as successive administrations have pushed harder and harder to kill off a project they consider duplicative.
When President Obama took office, he began including the engine in a short list of costly defense projects that he considered wasteful and unnecessary. In a speech on government waste in 2009, Obama singled out the engine for ridicule. "The Defense Department is already pleased with the engine it has," Obama said. "The engine it has works. The Pentagon does not want and does not plan to use the alternative version. That's why the Pentagon stopped requesting this funding two years ago. Yet it's still being funded."
Congressional supporters of the plane have pushed back. Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee included the next $485 million installment for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine in their defense authorization package. The measure is expected to come to the House floor for a vote next week.
Lobbying on the hill has been fierce on both sides. GE has three former U.S. Senators pushing the cause for them, and a review by the Center for Responsive politics showed the three main companies involved in the engine wars have spent more than $60 million on lobbyists over the past 2 ½ years. GE has also launched an advertising campaign to decry the notion of giving one defense contractor a monopoly over the engine's production.
GE spokesman Rick Kennedy told ABC News that he believes it is the job of Congress to take the long view of the program – and recognize that short term costs may be high, but long term savings more than make it worthwhile.
"You know we have been reinstating year after year after year, in the budget, because the case for competition is simply too compelling for a program this size," Kennedy said. "For that reason we feel like we're standing on the side of the angels."
That's not what Gates believes. "Only in Washington does a proposal where everybody wins get considered a competition."