WASHINGTON — Determined to reduce deficits, impatient House Republican freshmen made common cause with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, scoring their biggest victory to date in a vote to cancel $450 million for an alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation warplane.
"Right here, right now was a surefire way to reduce spending," declared Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a second-term lawmaker whose summons to cut money from the F-35 fighter jet was answered by 47 Republican newcomers. Speaker John Boehner and other House GOP leaders back the funding.
The incursion into the defense budget occurred as the Republican-controlled House debated legislation to cut federal spending by more than $61 billion through the end of the current fiscal year. Nearly all of the reductions are aimed at domestic programs, ranging from education aid to nutrition, environmental protection and farm programs.
Obama has threatened a veto if the measure reaches his desk, but he and the GOP newcomers were on the same side when it came to the engine for the F-35, the costliest weapons program in U.S. history. The House vote was 233-198.
Successive presidents as well as the Pentagon brass have tried to scrap funding for the alternative engine, arguing it is a waste of money. In a measure of his opposition, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a House committee earlier in the day that overall costs could reach $3 billion, and he vowed to "look at all available legal options to close down this program" if lawmakers fail.
Strictly by the numbers, the vote was a bipartisan one, with 110 Republicans and 123 Democrats supporting cancellation of the funds, while 68 Democrats and 130 Republicans wanted to leave them in place.
But that breakdown obscured the change wrought by the voters last fall. A similar vote in May ended in defeat for opponents of the alternative engine. At the time, Democrats controlled the House, and only 57 Republicans voted to cut off funds. Many of today's first-term Republicans were mere candidates for office, campaigning with the support of tea party activists and promising to cut spending. "Give these new freshmen credit. They went against their own leadership," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., also a foe of the alternative engine.
The ultimate fate of the alternative engine wasn't sealed by the day's vote. Supporters of the project are likely to try and preserve it when the Senate debates its version of the bill.