Progress reported on F-22s; House, Senate leaders confer on resolving stalemate over funds; 'Good breakthrough'; Conferees will meet Monday in wake of talks in Lott's office


WASHINGTON -- The leadership of the House and Senate reported progress last night after meeting to resolve an F-22 funding problem that had reached a stalemate.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, summoned a high-powered group of lawmakers to his office yesterday, a day after conference committee negotiations broke down over how many of the Air Force fighter jets to buy with next year's military spending bill.

"We made a good breakthrough," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said after the nearly two-hour, closed-door session. "They've got some language to work out," the Texas Republican said.

No one connected to the meeting -- which also included House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay -- would reveal what form the F-22 deal will take.

"It's really just a work in progress," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "I'm not going to say anything until we get this thing done."

A defense budget conference committee now plans to meet Monday to complete work on a nearly $270 billion military spending plan that includes some compromise on the F-22.

The House of Representatives stunned the Air Force in July by voting against spending $1.8 billion next year to buy the next six copies of the Lockheed Martin-built F-22. It did approve $1.2 billion to continue research and testing.

The Senate had approved full funding of $3 billion for the program.

Rep. Jerry Lewis hatched the plan for what the California Republican called a "pause" in the F-22, arguing that the Air Force needs to take stock of whether the $62.7 billion effort is necessary for a post-Cold War future.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska remained determined to restore most of the money for the program and to buy all six planes next year.

When a House-Senate conference committee met Sept. 22 to iron out differences, Stevens offered a compromise that would restore about $1.2 billion for buying six planes, but would require the F-22s to be test versions instead of production models.

While Stevens' plan contained no production money for next year, it did include $227 million in advance procurement for 10 planes in 2001.

Lewis responded first by offering to buy two research planes next year, and on Tuesday upped the deal to three research planes. But he disagreed with putting a down payment on the 10 future planes.

Stevens never responded to that offer, sources said, and Tuesday night he ordered Senate staffers to quit talking to House staffers about the entire military spending plan.

Yesterday, the congressional leadership appeared to grow frustrated with the stalemate. A spokesman for Hastert said in the afternoon that the speaker was not interested in dickering over how many F-22s to buy next year and simply wanted work on the bill finished.

Lott also was said to want resolution, and was reported to be turning up the pressure to include $1.5 billion in the appropriation for building a Navy vessel in Mississippi.

He summoned Lewis, Stevens and the leadership of both houses to his office about 4: 30 p.m. "I think we've got to have enough money so the [existing] contracts are not abrogated and [so] we can do enough planes -- I won't specify a number -- to allow time for there to be some further review of this program," Lott said.

But as Stevens arrived, he did not appear inclined to negotiate. "I've made my last offer," he said.

Simply getting Stevens back at the table with Lewis "was a breakthrough," several sources suggested.

Afterward, Stevens left hurriedly. "We've committed to finishing the bill by Monday. Other than that I have no comment," he said.

Resolving the F-22 issue is central to completing work on the entire defense appropriation. The House version of the bill took the $1.8 billion from the F-22 and redistributed it to a series of other programs, buying extra F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, C-130J transport planes and a Joint STARS surveillance plane, as well as putting money into pilot training and retention.

Many members of Congress would like to keep those items. But the Senate version of the defense bill already was $3 billion lower than the House version, so deciding how much money to restore to the F-22 is the key that unlocks how much money is at issue.

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin Corp. have argued that anything short of full funding for six production planes in 2000 would disrupt contracts and amount to a termination of the program. Lewis has argued that he is not looking to kill the F-22, only to slow it down.

DeLay agreed last night that the F-22 needs more testing before the nation commits to buying it. So far, the program has logged only about 5 percent of its flight test regime.

"It should go through a normal process of R&D; testing before we start ordering it," DeLay said. In the past, the Texas Republican said, the Pentagon has made it "a practice to order before testing, and that has proven to be a very expensive process."

Pub Date: 9/30/99

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