WASHINGTON -- High-level House and Senate negotiators made no progress again yesterday in deciding how many F-22 fighter planes to buy next year, holding up the entire $266 billion defense spending plan.
The House-Senate conference committee on defense spending remained in recess for the second straight day as its leaders -- primarily Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Rep. Jerry Lewis of California -- met secretly to hash out the F-22.
With pressure mounting to complete all spending bills by the end of the fiscal year next Friday, the stalemate is likely to break early next week, sources said.
"They're sort of at that interim stage where each side has made its offer and says, 'No further,' " said one congressional staffer who asked not to be identified. "But soon the leadership will say, 'That ain't gonna cut it,' so they'll get back together" and find a compromise.
The House voted in July to cut $1.8 billion from the budget that was supposed to buy six more F-22s next year, leaving $1.2 billion to continue research and development.
Led by Lewis, the Republican who chairs the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, House members voted to suspend the $62.7 billion Lockheed Martin Corp. program for a year while the Air Force takes stock of other needs such as transport planes and pilot retention.
The Senate approved full F-22 funding of $3 billion for next year, so the conference committee was formed to reconcile that and other differences in the two chambers' defense spending plans.
House and Senate staffers have been working feverishly to iron out differences in the bulk of the bill so that, as soon as the two sides reach a basic understanding on the F-22, "they can come back into the full conference committee and finish in one session," said Jim Specht, a spokesman for Lewis.
At the committee's first closed-door meeting Wednesday night, Stevens offered a plan that would restore most of the money to the F-22 program, but would put the full amount into research and development instead of production, according to members of Congress who attended.
That plan would still allow for the purchase of up to six planes in 2000, but there would have to be more testing first, and the planes would not be production models. Stevens also wants to include some $270 million as a down payment on 10 production planes to be bought in 2001.
Lewis remains opposed to the advance production money, and he had offered a compromise that would fund only two research planes next year.
That is where the negotiators remain stuck -- two planes vs. six.
"I'm frankly surprised that it's gone on this long," said Bert Cooper, a military aircraft expert with the Congressional Research Service (CRS). "Lewis has obviously decided to make more of a stand than I think anyone expected, and he must be finding support out there."
But another expert found it troubling that either side would be willing to compromise on the number or types of planes being bought.
"You can't compromise with this program. Either you kill it, or [let it stay] healthy," said Richard Aboulafia, a military expert with the Teal Group consulting firm. Buying fewer than six planes next year will only drive up the cost of each individual jet, he said. The F-22 already stands to cost an average of $185 million apiece, including research and support.
"To compromise lets you cripple this program through underfunding, which is so incompetent it doesn't even deserve to be called lawmaking," Aboulafia said.
Even Stevens' plan to buy six planes but restrict them to research would seem to violate the terms of Lockheed Martin's contract on the F-22. The company and the Air Force, which have lobbied ferociously to restore full funding, have said that buying anything less than the full complement of production planes next year would shatter the program.
The Pentagon agreed last year to buy the first two production-model planes, and that contract was contingent on the next six production planes also being purchased.
"I don't see how you can square that position with this position that Stevens has taken," said Cooper of the CRS.
Pub Date: 9/25/99