Rumors fly over fate of F-22; Some say conferees will partially restore funds cut by House


Top House and Senate budget negotiators have begun closed-door sessions that will determine the fate of the Lockheed Martin-built F-22 fighter plane.

Rumors flew over the weekend about deals to save the jet from a $1.8 billion budget cut approved in July by the House, but nothing has been resolved.

"There is no final decision made about the F-22 or anything else," said Jim Specht, spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending. Lewis is pushing to stop funds for the next six F-22 planes.

Lewis met yesterday with Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has said repeatedly that he intends to see funds restored for the $62.7 billion F-22 program. The men also met over the weekend and Thursday when much of Washington was enduring Hurricane Floyd.

The two Republicans, along with two Democrats, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, were hammering out ground rules so the full committee of defense budget conferees can meet beginning as soon as today or tomorrow.

One highly placed congressional staff member said Stevens wants to get the F-22 issue resolved before moving on to other differences between House and Senate versions of the $266 billion defense spending bill. The Senate had approved the full $3 billion financing for the F-22 for next year, while the House allotted only $1.2 billion for program research.

The staff member, who requested anonymity, said the program will be saved, but in diminished form.

"Some money will be restored, but not the full $1.8 billion," the staff member said. The result would be not only fewer planes bought next year, but a smaller overall F-22 program -- possibly 200-plus planes instead of the 339 that were planned.

If the program gets smaller, the price of each individual plane will rise even as the total cost declines. A single F-22 now carries an expected sticker price of $97.7 million each, though if all research and support costs are factored in, each plane will cost about $185 million.

Industry and Air Force officials have said that any tinkering with financing will only make those numbers rise.

Lewis' spokesman said the congressman has not signed off on any compromise plan. "Many people have thoughts on where they should be going, but Congressman Lewis has not cut any deal whatsoever," Specht said.

Lewis and others in Congress have concluded that while the F-22 will be an extraordinarily capable plane, it is an unbearable expense at a time when many basic military functions such as training and support are underfinanced.

A series of articles that ran in The Sun in July illustrated the difficulty of affording the program along with two other fighter planes being developed by the Navy and the Air Force, and examined how changes in the world have overtaken the Cold War mission for which the F-22 was designed.

Lewis remains committed to having the full conference committee discuss the idea of a one-year "pause" in production of the plane to reconsider Air Force spending priorities, his spokesman said.

The congressman would like that discussion to be held in an open session, followed by a public vote, Specht said, but other leaders seem cool to that notion.

"At this point, that's part of the negotiation," he said.

The conferees are under pressure from congressional leadership to get the defense spending bill wrapped up. So far, Congress has completed work on only four of 13 overall spending bills.

With the fiscal year set to expire at the end of this month, Republicans want to get moving to avoid the kind of government shutdown that tarnished the party's image during the budgetary logjam of 1995.

Lewis' subcommittee redistributed the $1.8 billion F-22 cut to other programs -- buying extra F-15 and F-16 fighter planes, C-130J transport planes, a Joint STARS surveillance plane and spending more on pilot training and retention. Broad congressional constituencies would like to see that spending remain.

But the Senate defense bill was already $3 billion smaller than the House version, so reconciling them is an especially tricky task.

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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