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"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Threatened by Controversial Jet Engine Program

June 1, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Last week, the House of Representatives and a key Senate committee cast historic votes in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military. The repeal is included in the Fiscal Year 2011 Defense Department Authorization bill, which contains funding levels and policy directives that the military must follow. The Obama Administration supports Congress’s actions on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but they are dead set against another item that some members of Congress want to have included in the authorization bill, and if it is, the Administration says they will veto the whole bill, including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.

At issue is $485 million that the House last week voted to preserve for continuing a program that directs funds to General Electric and Rolls Royce to create an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Striker Fighter jet. The Obama Administration and the Pentagon are trying to end this program, which they say will require another $2.4 billion to be completed, because they don’t think the costs will ever be recovered and because they think the money could be spent more effectively on other defense needs. The Administration has made their efforts at ending the program a main talking point on rooting out wasteful spending in the federal budget.

The House voted 193-231 last week against an amendment from Rep. Chellie Pingree [D, ME-1] that would have ended the program and shifted the $485 million set aside for it to the National Guard and Reserves.

Opponents of the amendment argued that the program is designed to encourage competition in the military procurement process, which, in the end, will save the government money. “The first engine was not competitively bid, it was the engine that Lockheed had when they won the bid,” Rep. Adam Smith [D, WA-9] said on the House floor. “That is why the Pentagon originally created the second engine program, to make sure that over the 30- to 40-year lifecycle of a $100 billion program, they had options.”

So far, the Senate version of the Defense authorization bill does not contain funds for continuing the alternate engine program. But the possibility of adding the funds sets up an opportunity for “don’t ask, don’t tell” supporters to scuttle the Democrats’ efforts at repealing it.

Only one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME], has come out so far in favor of the repeal, and only two Republicans, Collins and Sen. Scott Brown [R, MA], voted in favor of the Defense bill including the repeal amendment in the Armed Services Committee. Most Republicans remain in favor of the policy and would fight to protect it. For example, after the vote in the Armed Service Committee Sen. John McCain [R, AZ] said, “I’ll do everything in my power [to stop the repeal].”

Furthermore, at least one Senate Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb [D, VA], is opposed to the repeal language.

Republicans could work their leverage here in two ways — 1) try to win a vote on a floor amendment to the defense bill in the Senate to add funding for the alternate engine program, and/or 2) push for the House-Senate conference committee to keep the funds in the final bill that gets sent to Obama.

When the House voted on the engine program funding, 67% of Republicans voted in favor of keeping it in the bill. And while most Democrats voted against keeping the funding, they did so by only a slim majority of 54%. If support in the Senate for continuing the alternate engine program is similar to what it is in the House, the Republicans seem to have a real chance of using this to block the Democrats’ attempt to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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