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Congress this week is engaged in one of those debates that makes you want to throw up your hands in despair over the political process. At issue is whether the country needs to order seven more F-22 Raptor fighter jets.
"If we can't get this right, what on Earth can we get right?" asks Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
The F-22 debate does not break along traditional Democrat-Republican lines, nor even liberal-moderate-conservative. Gates, a Republican holdover from President George W. Bush's Cabinet, proposed to his new Democratic boss, President Barack Obama, that funding for the F-22 be deleted from the 2010 defense budget.
Reason: While it is an excellent airplane, it is a hideously expensive airplane (total program cost works out to $331 million each) that really isn't needed. The Air Force's wings of F-15 fighters already give the United States superiority over any plane likely to be in the air in the next 20 years. Far better, Gates argues, to spend the money on more critical defense needs.
Nevertheless, defense appropriators in both the Senate and the House voted to add money for more Raptors - seven more in the Senate version of the bill and advance funding for up to 12 more in the House.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor for the F-22, scattered work on the plane across 44 states. For too many members of Congress, political concerns far outweigh defense and budget concerns. Fifty-three more of the planes (for a total of 187) already have been funded, so while jobs are at stake, they're not at stake right away. Adding seven more planes might keep production going six extra months.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, agrees with the Obama administration. Along with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., McCain sponsored an amendment that would strip funding for the F-22 from the budget.
High-profile Senate Democrats, including Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, also want to continue F-22 funding; Massachusetts-based Raytheon is a major F-22 subcontractor, and Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney builds its engines.
The Senate charge is led by Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, where Lockheed does final assembly on the plane. He is ably assisted by Washington's two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell; Boeing builds the F-22's wings and aft fuselage in Seattle.
Obama has said he would consider vetoing the entire defense budget if funding for the F-22 were included. On Monday, Senate leaders pushed back by taking up hate crimes legislation that the president favors - legislation that is included in the defense appropriations bill.
That put off a showdown vote on the McCain-Levin amendment until at least late last night or early today. It also puts pressure on Obama: If he vetoes the bill that contains F-22 funding, he'll also be vetoing the hate crimes legislation.
Meanwhile, House defense appropriators are scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider restoring not just F-22 funding, but also other programs that Gates wants to cut, including Boeing's C-17 cargo plane.
Thus, despair over the political process. The nation's real defense needs, as well as its real budget concerns and even laws against hate crimes, may be sacrificed on the altar of political contributions and make-work jobs.