July 28, 2010 — -- Despite vocal objections from President Obama and the Pentagon, and even a looming veto threat, a House subcommittee Tuesday voted to spend nearly half-a-billion dollars on a backup engine for its next-generation fighter jet.
The appropriations panel approved $450 million in additional funding for General Electric and Rolls Royce to develop the Joint Strike Fighter's alternate engine on an 11-5 vote, despite opposition from the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).
"I did not want to get my first bill vetoed," Dicks told reporters.
That veto threat is now casting a heavy shadow over congressional plans to pass a $681 billion military spending plan, as White House officials told ABC News Tuesday night there has been no revision to the message Obama sent Congress in May.
"If the final bill presented to the President includes funding or a legislative direction to continue an extra engine program, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto," the president's message states.
ABC News first reported on the controversial engine program, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed had already cost $3 billion, in May. At issue is the contract for the engine that will power the strike fighter, an all-purpose military jet that is expected to become the backbone of American air supremacy for a generation. The fighter already has an engine - built by Pratt & Whitney and in use as the jet is being tested. That month, Gates tried to increase pressure on Congress to drop the engine program, which he described as a wasteful boondoggle.
"The Bush administration opposed this engine. The Obama administration opposes it. We have recommended for several years now against funding this engine, considering it a waste of money," Gates told reporters. "To argue that we should add another $3 billion [over time] in what we regard as waste … frankly, I don't track the logic."
Some members of Congress, though, have pushed for years to pay General Electric and Rolls-Royce to develop a second one. Having two companies working to build engines for the fighter will create a competitive environment that will drive down costs, they have argued.
"There has been much debate on the issue of the second engine, but it all comes down to this: competition saves money," said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, and the author of an amendment to add funding for the GE engine. "I truly believe that spending a little money today will save a great deal in the future."
But Gates has disputed the notion that a second engine would save money. He and other critics of the contract have argued that aggressive lobbying by General Electric has been the prime driver.
GE has reported spending more than $15 million on lobbying through June, a 30 percent increase over 2009, according to the Washington Post. That effort has included some of Capitol Hill's most connected lobbyists, including former House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former senators John Breaux (D-La.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.)
Pratt and Whitney, which has also sunk millions into lobbying, issued a statement Tuesday to express bewilderment at the decision to keep funding going for a project it called "wasteful, duplicative, unnecessary."
"The administration and the DoD have been clear and consistent in their position that continuing to waste money on an unnecessary extra engine for the F-35 comes at the expense of other priorities our warfighters need today," the Pratt statement said. "The extra engine will cost more than it will save, will not create new jobs, and the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine currently powering the F-35 is performing flawlessly."
But General Electric said the subcommittee members who voted on the spending proposal are the ones who have spent the most time studying the complexities of the engine question.
Those members "examined this issue in great detail, and determined that competing [Joint Strike Fighter] engines is sound fiscal and public policy," said Rick Kennedy, a GE spokesman, in an email to ABC News. "The case for competing engines on a program this large is simply too compelling."
Several steps in the budget process remain, including the process of reconciling the House bill with the military spending plan approved by the Senate - a plan that did not include funding for the alternate engine. If the final version does include funding for the engine, and Obama makes good on his veto threat, Rep. Dicks told reporters he did not think there were enough votes in the House to override it.
But Rep. Lewis said the president's veto threat is not reason for the House to falter in its support.
"I say that we cannot let fear and threats keep us from doing what we believe is right for the taxpayers and our troops," Lewis said.