February 16, 2011

Chellie Pingree: Save money, cut alternate F-35 engine

Rep. Chellie Pingree says her stance is about fiscal prudence, not about protecting Maine jobs.

By JONATHAN RISKIND MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress looking for common-sense ways to save taxpayer dollars should eliminate a planned alternate engine for the military's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Rep. Chellie Pingree said Tuesday.

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F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in flight.

Photo courtesy F-35 Joint Program Office

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She could find out as early as today whether a majority of House members agree.

Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine's 1st Congressional District, joined a bipartisan group of House members at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday aimed at building support for axing the alternate engine, a move the lawmakers say ultimately would save $3 billion.

Most immediately, they want to get rid of a $450 million allocation for the second engine contained in legislation to provide federal spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. A vote on that amendment is expected today.

House GOP leaders hope to pass the overall bill later this week, but the Democratic-led Senate likely will make changes.

It's no coincidence that Pingree is involved with the engine issue. Her district is home to a Pratt & Whitney plant in North Berwick.

A Pratt & Whitney spokesman said about 100 employees currently work on the primary F-35 engine program at the North Berwick plant, but that would ramp up to more than 500 manufacturing and engineering jobs when the engine is in full production. If proponents of the alternate engine succeed in their push to build a second engine at an equal production rate, some of those North Berwick jobs would be lost, according to Pratt & Whitney.

The North Berwick plant manufactures a half dozen types of main engine parts, including outer air seals and low pressure turbine blades, according to Pratt & Whitney.

But Pingree says this isn't about protecting jobs in Maine.

That already was decided, she said, when Pratt & Whitney won the competition to build the main engine, and when the Bush administration and now the Obama administration, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, said work on the alternate engine no longer needs to proceed.

But the alternate engine, which is being built by General Electric and Rolls Royce, has had powerful backers. Among them is House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose district is near a Cincinnati-area General Electric Aviation plant helping to build the alternate engine.

Attempts have been made to cut funding for the alternate engine for several years without success. But those backing the cut say they hope to take advantage of the focus this year on cutting federal spending and bringing down the deficit.

Proponents of maintaining the alternate engine program say the competition could ultimately create savings, and that it is safer for national security to have a backup engine.

Opponents note that the Pentagon itself says the second engine no longer is needed, and that nearly all U.S. military aircraft rely on just a single source engine.

Pingree said about 40 percent of the alternate engine would be built in the United Kingdom, in any case. She noted that earlier in her House career, she voted to end funding directed to the F-22 fighter – built by none other than Pratt & Whitney.

"We need to find cuts where we can," Pingree said, calling a second engine for the F-35 "unnecessary and wasteful" and a "giveaway to a big defense contractor" that doesn't aid in the national defense.

GOP Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida is taking the lead on the amendment to strike the alternate engine funding from this year's budget. He credited House GOP leaders with allowing a vote on the issue despite Boehner's opposition.

Rooney's state, too, is home to a Pratt & Whitney plant, a testing facility in Palm Beach County, though that is outside his district.

But Rooney also says parochial loyalty isn't why he is pushing for the elimination of the alternate engine. He calls it a "luxury our country simply cannot afford."

 

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: jriskind@mainetoday.com

 

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