Fight over alternate engine coming up in Senate

WASHINGTON-The omnibus budget unveiled by Senate Democrats Tuesday includes 6,600 earmarks worth an estimated $8 billion. But one in particular has caught the attention of Connecticut’s congressional delegation: a $450 million provision to fund an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, and Chris Dodd, a Democrat, both said they would try to strip the alternate engine funding from the legislation when it comes to the Senate floor sometime this week.

The battle over this one provision–included in a bill that runs more than 1,900 pages and carries a $1.2 trillion price tag–could produce political fireworks as lawmakers try to keep the government running after Dec. 18, when an existing stop-gap spending measure expires. 

Pratt & Whitney makes the main engine for the JSF; General Electric and Rolls Royce are developing the second engine, a fall-back option for the military plane. The two Connecticut-based companies, Pratt and GE, have been at loggerheads over this issue for years.

Now, with Senate bill headed for a vote, the issue appears to be coming to a head. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a long-time backer of the GE-Rolls engine, included the $450 million provision when he crafted the massive Senate spending bill.

But Lieberman and Dodd are promising a floor fight.

“It would be unconscionable to waste another taxpayer dollar on the alternate engine,” Lieberman said in a statement Tuesday night. “I will fight on the Senate floor to terminate this earmark and restore those funds to the Joint Strike Fighter program that our military needs.”

Dodd, too, said he’d work to nix that money from the bill.

A competing House measure to fund the government through fiscal year 2011 includes no earmarks. And when it comes to the alternate engine, it goes further, giving Defense Secretary Robert Gates flexibility to shift funding around to suit Pentagon priorities.

Gates has said he doesn’t want the alternate engine and that the military doesn’t need it. So Gates could use the “flexibility” language in the House bill to kill the program, if that legislation prevails.

The White House has also threatened to veto a defense bill that includes funding for the program. Pratt lobbyists have seized on the Administration’s opposition in the hopes of killing the alternative engine entirely.

GE lobbyists have mounted a fierce counter-offensive, saying the alternate engine could save the Pentagon billions of dollars by maintaining competition in the JSF program. They argue that Pratt just wants a monopoly on this lucrative Pentagon contract.

The Department of Defense could eventually spend $100 billion on JSF engines, and it’s no surprise that both firms want a piece of the program, which some have called “the contract of the century.”

Even as the Connecticut lawmakers go to bat for Pratt, the fight over the alternate engine may put Lieberman and Dodd in bit of a tough spot. Many other Democrats strongly prefer the Senate omnibus bill over the slimmer House version, because of its fatter bottom line and funding for home-state projects.

Among the earmarks requested by Dodd and Lieberman included the omnibus bill, for example, are a $500,000 transportation provision to make pedestrian safety improvements in Stamford and a $333,000 item for flood prevention around the Copper Mine Brook in Bristol.

Indeed, Republicans have voiced stiff opposition to the omnibus bill, in part because it is stuffed with earmarks–many requested by GOP lawmakers who are now eager to demonstrate fiscal restraint.