This article incorrectly suggested that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates initiated a conversation with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) before the vote to scrap funding for the F-22 fighter jet. Kerry called Gates first. The article also misstated the amount of the Air Force's request for the F-22 stealth fighter jet program. It was about $4 billion, for 20 more planes.
White House's Aggressive Effort Ends Funding for F-22
Sunday, July 26, 2009
The most remarkable thing happened in Washington this past Tuesday.
Congress scrapped the F-22 stealth fighter jet, killing off a 30-year-old Pentagon hardware program that employs 25,000 people in 46 states.
It was a dogfight almost to the end over $1.75 billion and the need to remake military readiness. Threats and promises, blunt talk and grand gestures -- all were deployed to support an appeal to common sense and for urgent change, according to principals involved. The White House coordinated the ultimately successful vote-wrangling, and its specific tactics may show up again in another epic battle now unfolding: getting Congress to draft and pass health-care reform.
For years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has argued strenuously against the F-22s as Cold War relics, too inefficient and expensive to warrant building any more than the 187 already in the fleet. He cut the Air Force's F-22 funding request of $400 billion, for 20 more, to zero.
He bluntly warned Lockheed Martin that he would slice funding for the more modern F-35 jet if the contracting giant lobbied to build more F-22s. Lockheed Martin's chief executive, Robert J. Stevens, told employees he supported Gates's call "to put the interests of the United States first -- above the interests of agencies, services and contractors." That left the powerful lobbyists to sit on their hands.
But lawmakers had all those jobs on the line in their districts, and in a lousy economy. Republicans and Democrats alike defied Gates and the White House. In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 13 to 11 to shift the $1.75 billion from other programs.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the committee's ranking Republican, and Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) fought back with an amendment to the defense budget bill to strip that funding out. Then the two senators, Gates and White House officials started looking for 51 votes.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called an old Chicago pal just back from a honeymoon in Italy. He asked for a favor: Could Bill Daley quickly pull together a full house at the Economic Club of Chicago if Gates were to come and deliver a forceful speech about military readiness and how the F-22 was a bad idea?
"I said we would love to do that," said Daley, a former commerce secretary. "I got hold of the [club's] president. We sent out a blast e-mail," and about 800 members, including several executives of Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, were on hand about two weeks later, on July 16, to listen politely.
"And we got great play," said Daley, with much media coverage of Gates's remarks and his forceful comments to reporters after the speech. It was exactly what the White House wanted.
Meanwhile, President Obama vowed to veto any bill funding the F-22s. "We do not need these planes," he wrote in letters on July 13 to McCain and Levin.
When a showdown vote loomed on July 15, Senate Democratic leaders who backed Obama's effort to scuttle the program did not think they had the votes to win. There was opposition in their own caucus: Sen. Patty Murray wanted the F-22 funding (and ultimately supported it in the final Senate vote, as did her fellow Democratic senator from Washington and the two Democratic senators from California). There were only about 20 votes that could be counted on to scrap the F-22 program, and even with those undecided and leaning, "we didn't crack 50," a Senate aide said.