Inouye parries Obama on jets


POSTED: Monday, August 24, 2009

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, one of Capitol Hill's most powerful politicians by dint of his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is bucking President Barack Obama on two high-profile spending controversies.

In the first major clash between the two Hawaii-born Democrats since Obama entered the White House, Inouye is pursuing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop an alternative jet engine for a new aircraft dubbed the Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon and Obama insist the second engine is unnecessary.

The eight-term senator, who leads both the full appropriations panel and its defense subcommittee, also pushed spending for more F-22 jet fighters despite opposition from the administration. However, funding for the additional planes now appears to be dead.

Obama lambasted the defense industry and Congress last week for what he called wasteful military spending.

“;The impulse in Washington to protect jobs back home building things we don't need has a cost that we can't afford,”; the president told a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “;This waste would be unacceptable at any time. But at a time when we're fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, it's inexcusable. It's unconscionable,”; he added. “;It's an affront to the American people and to our troops. And it's time for it to stop.”;

The president did not target any lawmaker by name. And none of the parts for the F-22 or the second F-35 engine are made in Hawaii.

Still, Inouye has been a loyal supporter of both programs. The F-22 was designed as a Cold War weapon but could be vital against a Chinese attack on Taiwan or a Russian war in the Baltics, Inouye contended on the Senate floor last month.

“;Unless we truly believe that we will never face another nation state in a conventional conflict, then the F-22 is indeed necessary,”; he said.

The plane was originally designed to replace Air Force F-15s, and 20 of them are still planned to go to the Hawaii Air National Guard. But at $140 million a copy, it was criticized as far too expensive.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to cap its production at almost 190 aircraft. Administration officials in June warned Congress that the defense appropriations bill—of which Inouye's committee is a primary author—would likely be vetoed if it included funding for more of them.

The Senate complied last month, killing $1.75 billion in further spending on it. Inouye and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, backed the plane.

A few days later, senators by voice vote eliminated $439 million for the second F-35 engine. The administration also had threatened a veto over that program, too, though in less declaratory language than it used in its warning on the F-22.

But Inouye recently told Congressional Quarterly that he wants to resurrect funding for the engine in his committee's defense appropriations bill, due next month, because “;it makes good sense.”;

Inouye spokesman Peter Boylan said the senator has met with Gates and Vice President Joe Biden on defense spending, including the second engine. But Inouye continues to favor it as long as it does not cause cost overruns or delay the entire F-35 program, Boylan said.

“;If you have a single supplier, you can guarantee ... the government will pay a premium,”; Boylan added.

However, the price tag for the F-35 aircraft, now at $80 million to $90 million a copy, is rising, and the Pentagon wants to cover those costs with money slated for the second engine, said Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

But if Inouye and Congress persist, the money for the alternate engine has to come from somewhere. Critics worry that Inouye will raid military operations and maintenance accounts, a frequent target of congressional appropriations committees that insist on financing a weapons project.

“;It shrinks the money available for training and maintenance and those kinds of operational needs of the armed forces,”; said Winslow Wheeler, who heads the military reform project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “;The committee and its staff simply don't care.”;

Still, Inouye is under heavy pressure from colleagues to back job-producing defense projects and from the White House to make the cuts, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer and longtime defense analyst for the Lexington Institute.

“;Inouye is a veteran who usually backs funding of military programs,”; Thompson said in an e-mail. “;So it takes a lot to convince him that something the military wants is unnecessary.”;

Though the administration persuaded Inouye not to buck Obama too much on the F-22, Thompson added, the White House “;can't count on overriding the military every time because Inouye trusts the judgment of the war fighters.”;