Congress may override efforts by Secretary Gates to cut defense spending

By Craig Whitlock and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 17, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has vowed to impose fiscal austerity at the Pentagon, but his biggest challenge may be persuading Congress to go along.

Lawmakers from both parties are poised to override Gates and fund the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- two weapons systems the defense secretary has been trying to cut from next year's budget. They have also made clear they will ignore Gates's pleas to hold the line on military pay raises and health-care costs, arguing that now is no time to skimp on pay and benefits for troops who have been fighting two drawn-out wars.

The competing agendas could lead to a major clash between Congress and the Obama administration this summer. Gates has repeatedly said he will urge President Obama to veto any defense spending bills that include money for the F-35's extra engine or the C-17, both of which he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate last year.

"Secretary Gates is a very deliberate and careful man," said his press secretary, Geoff Morrell. "He does not make idle threats."

Gates is hardly the first defense secretary to try to kill expensive weapons systems, only to have them spring back to life on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are reluctant to cut programs that provide jobs in their legislative districts, even if the programs' military usefulness is marginal.

But in several recent speeches, Gates has warned that the "gusher" of money that has poured into Pentagon accounts since Sept. 11, 2001, will shrink to a trickle for the foreseeable future, constricted by the federal government's soaring deficit.

"One of the members of Congress, I'm told, said, 'Well, why is $3 billion for the alternative engine such a big deal when we've got a trillion-dollar deficit?' I would submit that's one of the reasons we have a trillion-dollar deficit, is that kind of thinking," Gates told reporters this month. "And so we're not just going to roll over to preserve programs that we think we don't need, regardless of where the pressure is coming from."

The primary engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, projected as the centerpiece of U.S. airpower in the coming decades, is manufactured by Pratt & Whitney. But some in Congress want to spur competition with an alternative engine built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce.

Despite Gates's talk of vetoes, two House subcommittees last week approved $485 million for the second engine next year. The program enjoys the support of key leaders in Congress, including Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairmen of the House and Senate armed services committees, respectively.

Some lawmakers said that they concur with Gates on the need to rein in spending, but that disagreements on details were inevitable.

"While we may disagree on one or two specific programs, including the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, I think Secretary Gates is headed in the right direction," Levin said in an e-mailed statement for this article. "We do need to spend our money very carefully, and that means hard choices. The secretary got about 80 percent of what he hoped for last year, and it didn't take a veto to accomplish that, and I don't see any reason why it would this year."

A Republican holdover from the Bush administration, Gates is considered an influential player on Capitol Hill. Last year, he surprised many military leaders and defense lobbyists by persuading Congress to kill the F-22 stealth fighter, which was designed during the Cold War and has been relegated to the sidelines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his campaign to eliminate the C-17 cargo plane and second engine for the F-35 failed.

Some industry analysts said Gates has put his reputation on the line by once again demanding an end to the second engine and the C-17.

"Gates has laid down the first marker, but he has a long way to prove it on both programs," said Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "He has to have total public backing from the White House, and he has to repeat his opposition to funding these over and over again."

The House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee last week backed Gates by not budgeting money for the C-17, but lawmakers have predicted that Congress will insert it into the final defense spending bill.

Travis Sharp, a defense industry analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said the C-17 program has broad legislative support because it employs more than 30,000 people in several states, including Missouri, Georgia, Arizona and California. "That many people employed in an economy that's still suffering and at a time when elections are coming up -- the confluence makes members of Congress reluctant to cut funding for it," Sharp said.

Congress also has not heeded Gates's call to restrain spending on military pay and benefits. The Pentagon asked for a 1.4 percent pay raise next year, but a House subcommittee approved an increase of 1.9 percent. Lawmakers have also ignored Gates's requests to trim health-care costs -- which he has said are "eating us alive" -- by increasing premiums for military retirees.

"Congress isn't on its own going to deal with military compensation or health care," said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior analyst at the Center for American Progress and a defense official in the Reagan administration. "But if the secretary of defense gets up there and says, 'If we don't do something, we're going to end up like General Motors,' then it might listen."

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