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.
Two 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 letter to Rooney earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said total costs could near $3 billion. Given the demands facing the military at a time of high deficits, "programs and initiatives of marginal or no benefit - like the engine - are unaffordable luxuries," he wrote.
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 federal 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.
"No federal agency is exempt," said freshman Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), who said the second engine "is militarily unnecessary and a wasteful use of extremely limited and precious taxpayer dollars."
Supporters had argued that the alternative engine would save money by injecting competition into the F-35 program.
Apart from spending cuts and the defense budget, the broader legislation before the House contains funding needed to keep the government operating normally after current authority expires on March 4.
House passage is expected by week's end, although debate has turned into something of an exercise in human endurance as Republicans live up to their pledge of free-flowing discussion and numerous amendments.
Lawmakers debated proposed changes to the bill well after midnight and into the early hours of Wednesday, and arrangements were in place for the House to stay in session as late as 3 a.m. on Thursday before adjourning for a few hours and returning to work.
Along the way, the House rejected a Democratic attempt to strip out funding for the Selective Service System, and a proposal to eliminate $1.5 billion for the Iraqi Security Forces fund.
But Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was successful in reducing money for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a facility that was built in southwestern Pennsylvania at the insistence of the area's late congressman, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). "There has been no better example of wasteful spending than the NDIC," said Flake, a longtime opponent of what are known as congressional earmarks.
More than 400 proposed changes were stacked up and could be voted on, ranging from the sweeping to the tightly targeted.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) has proposed replacing the targeted cuts with across-the-board reductions to achieve the same savings.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) wants to go big, cutting an additional $45 billion from the bill, to be taken across the board from domestic programs.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has one proposal to block the Department of Health and Human Services from studying "the concurrent and separate use of malt liquor and marijuana among young people," and another to make sure the National Science Foundation does not research whether "video games improve mental health for the elderly."
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.
Gates' spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said the defense chief viewed the House vote as "one step, although a very important one, on the path to ensuring that we stop spending limited dollars on unwanted and unneeded defense programs."
The fight over the alternative engine has long been more a regional clash than a partisan issue.
The main engine is built by Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp.
General Electric and Rolls-Royce are major contractors for the alternative engine, and the program has brought jobs to Ohio, among other regions. Boehner, who represents a district in the western part of the state, did not speak during debate on the issue and did not vote on the proposed cut. A spokesman said he did not attempt to lobby fellow lawmakers.
While a majority of first-term Republicans voted to strip out the funds, those from Virginia and Ohio as well as next-door Indiana were unanimously opposed, a dozen in all.
Whatever the bill's final shape, the heavy conservative majority in the House assures the legislation will face a hostile reception in the Senate, where Democrats generally favor higher spending for domestic programs.
A compromise is expected before the March 4 deadline to avoid a government shutdown that neither party says it wants, although the government may be forced to limp along on a series of short-term spending bills for weeks while the details are negotiated.
- Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.