House votes to kill funding for JSF alternate engine

WASHINGTON–Amid intense political pressure to slash federal spending, the House voted Wednesday to nix $450 million in funding for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, handing a major victory to Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney.

By a vote of 233-to-198, the House adopted an amendment–backed by veteran Democrat Rep. John Larson and sophomore Republican Rep. Tom Rooney–to strip funding for a second, back-up engine, made by Pratt competitors’ General Electric and Rolls Royce.

The Larson-Rooney win came despite strong opposition from House Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Those GOP leaders, along with a powerful lobbying campaign by GE and Rolls Royce, had for years managed to turn back repeated efforts to kill the alternate engine funding.

But on Wednesday, a wave of newly-elected, fiscally-conservative Republicans joined with a majority of Democrats to deal the second GE-Rolls engine a staggering, if not fatal, blow.

“This was a huge turnaround,” Larson said after the vote. The House was the “only vestige that this was hanging on to… The times dictate the change and the shift that’s happened.”

“This has been decades in the making,” echoed Rooney. “It has almost become part of the paint around here,” he said of long-shielded alternate engine money.

GE officials said this fight was not over and vowed on Wednesday to take their arguments to the Senate. But they face an uphill fight in that chamber, which has in the past voted against the alternate engine.

Larson said a confluence of forces came together to produce Wednesday’s surprise results. First, he noted, 110 Republicans voted in favor of the amendment “in the face of opposition from their own leaders.”

Larson, meanwhile, won over a handful of progressive Democrats, arguing that if they couldn’t vote to cut this unwanted military program, the party would be hard pressed to fight GOP efforts to trim cherished domestic spending.

“There’s a general feeling among progressives that if we can’t demonstrate that we can cut in this area, where can we?” Larson said of his pitch to Democrats like Reps. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who had previously voted to protect the alternate engine funding but voted against it on Wednesday.

But Larson also gave significant credit to Boehner, who has a GE plant in his home state, for not arm-twisting his GOP colleagues during Wednesday’s roll call.

“He played the role of the Speaker. He said ‘Let the House works its will,’ and he did, so you’ve got to give him credit for that,” Larson said.

GOP leaders did not make the alternate engine a party-line vote. And freshman GOP lawmakers, in particular, were inundated with a barrage of pitches to kill the program from a range of powerful forces–starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who strongly reiterated his desire to terminate the alternate engine program on Monday and again on Wednesday.

“You had Gates very assertively out front his time,” Larson said. “This administration was sending a louder message than it was last year,” when House Democrats, then in the majority, fell short in a similar bid to kill the alternate engine.

Meanwhile, Rooney said he spoke to almost every one of the 87 new Republican freshmen-many of them elected in November on a platform of cutting federal spending.

“I said, ‘This is an opportunity to fulfill your campaign promises… This is an easy one,” said Rooney, whose home state of Florida also has a Pratt facility.

Lobbyists for Pratt and its parent company, United Technologies Corp., similarly seized on the new climate of spending restraint to paint the GE-Rolls model as a luxury the country could no longer afford. They carefully tailored their arguments to the times, labeling the $450 provision an earmark and pork-barrel spending.

“Don’t add $3 billion to the deficit in the first 60 days of Congress,” blared a UTC ad that ran every morning this week in Politico’s Playbook, a Washington tip sheet that’s widely read by Capitol Hill staffers and lawmakers. “Taxpayers don’t want to waste billions on an extra engine for the JSF. Do what you were elected to do. Cancel funding for the JSF extra engine earmark.”

GE and Rolls Royce forces fought back with an economic pitch of their own. GE has long argued that competition in the JSF program would save money over the life of the program and said that killing the alternate engine would give Pratt a monopoly on one of the largest military contracts in history.

“Without competing JSF engines, the Department of Defense will hand a 20-year, $100 billion engine monopoly to a single engine supplier,” GE spokesman Rick Kennedy said Wednesday.

“The independent Government Accountability Office has twice concluded that engine competition in the Joint Strike Fighter could save 21 percent, or up to $20 billion, over the lifetime of the JSF program,” he said. “That level of savings simply cannot be ignored in this era of great fiscal challenge.”

Kennedy said GE is not deterred. “While we are disappointed at the outcome, the debate to preserve competition will continue,” he said.

The alternate engine has some powerful supporters in the Senate, including the chairman of the Armed Services Committe. But the Senate has already voted in the past to nix the alternate engine. And Larson said the House vote would likely just bolster the Senate’s stance on this issue.

Said Tony Bullock, a lobbyist with Ogilvy Government Relations hired by UTC to work on this issue: “I don’t see how the alternate engine lives beyond this vote.”