WASHINGTON -- There is no money for producing combat-caliber F-22 fighter planes next year under the defense spending plans that a House-Senate conference committee considered last night.
Instead, an unspecified number of planes would be built for research purposes.
Senate and House conferees met to hammer out differences in an overall defense spending plan of about $266 billion, and the F-22 was the single most contentious issue going into the closed-door, three-hour-plus session.
The House of Representatives voted in July against spending $1.8 billion to buy the next six of the Lockheed Martin-built fighter planes. It left $1.2 billion for F-22 research.
The Senate had backed full funding of $3 billion for the plane, and powerful Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, went into yesterday's conference determined to restore most of the money.
His proposal was reported to be only slightly less than the full $3 billion figure, but it left all the money in research and development and none in procurement.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who originated the idea of cutting the program, said Stevens' offer showed "a lot of willingness to move forward," though he said it still contained more money than he wants to spend on the F-22 next year.
"Both sides indicated an understanding that there has to be a little give on each side," said Rep. C. W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lewis has urged a pause in the $62.7 billion F-22 program, to reconsider whether the Air Force can afford such a highly capable but expensive weapon at a time when more basic needs such as pilot training go short.
Lewis said he modified his plan last night, offering to build two planes next year instead of none.
Stevens' plan did not contain a specific number of planes, only a general provision for "advance procurement" next year, according to lawmakers who attended the session. It also included $100 million for testing, which Lewis said was particularly important.
Lewis has said one his primary concerns is that the Pentagon was buying the F-22 before any of its sophisticated electronics have been flight-tested.
Keeping the funding in research accounts means that any planes bought next year would not be considered full-production models, and the Lockheed Martin and Boeing factories that build the planes would not be able to mount full-scale production lines until after more testing.
Stevens, who was not available for comment immediately after the session, said during a break that Lewis was "standing firm" but that the conference was making good progress.
Lewis said he would consider Stevens' proposal overnight and resume negotiations today.