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Obama Threatens Veto Over New Helicopters

By Ben Pershing
One week after successfully using a veto threat against the Senate's defense authorization bill, President Obama sent the House a similar threat Tuesday along with a message: He really doesn't want a new helicopter.

As was the case with the Senate bill, the House Defense appropriations measure, which is expected to be on the floor Wednesday or Thursday, includes money to continue production of the F-22 fighter and an alternate engine for the F-35 fighter. Both items were dropped from the Senate bill after Obama's veto threat, and he threatened again to issue a veto if they remain in the House measure. But the House bill also includes money for new presidential helicopters, and Obama's feelings are well-known on that subject.

"The Administration strongly objects to the addition of $400 million to make operational five partially-completed VH-71 helicopters," the Office of Management and Budget said in a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) issued Tuesday.

"These helicopters currently have no mission equipment and would require in excess of $2 billion to complete and to operate as Presidential helicopters, yet would still not meet full operational requirements for that mission. DOD and the White House are conducting a requirements analysis, and the outcome of this effort should not be pre-empted. If the final bill were to include funds that continue the existing VH-71 program, or would prejudge the plan to re-compete the Presidential helicopter program, the President's senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."

The program to build a new "Marine One" chopper, run by Bethesda-based Lockheed-Martin Corp., has been troubled almost since it began in 2005. The administration announced it was canceling the program earlier this year, after $3.2 billion had already been spent and the helicopters were running six years behind schedule. Obama laid down a marker on the issue in February, calling the program an example of military procurement "gone amok" and saying his current helicopter fleet "seems perfectly adequate."

But the House Appropriations Committee disagreed, putting money in the fiscal 2010 spending bill for the helicopter program anyway. "The president's got to have new helicopters," Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said earlier this month. "I think this is one the White House might back down on."

After the Senate's decisive vote last week, Murtha has already proposed amendments to the House bill to remove money for the F-22 fighter. Those amendments will be voted on before final passage of the spending bill. But the next step on the helicopter program is less clear.

"We look forward to working with the administration on their suggestions and concerns," Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said Tuesday, adding that Murtha believes "it's unacceptable for the Defense Department to spend $3.2 billion on a replacement helicopter program and not get anything out of it in the end."

The White House has argued that even with all the money already spent, it would cost so much to complete the VH-71 program that it should be terminated. One semantic point worth noting: The administration's SAP says, unequivocally, that if the Defense spending bill includes money for the F-22, "the President will veto it." But if the helicopter program remains, the SAP says "the President's senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill." That softer language indicates that there may be some room for compromise in the administration's position.

By Ben Pershing  |  July 28, 2009; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch , House , Purse Strings  
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