Push is on to cut funds for engine from Lynn

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Tea Party freshmen in Congress are siding with President Obama and gunning to eliminate $225 million from a House budget for General Electric’s backup engine for the Joint Strike Fighter program, a key test of Republican pledges to purge waste and earmarks.

The GE alternative — which would be built separately from a Pratt & Whitney engine, the future F-35 jet’s primary engine — has remained in development despite the opposition of Obama and the Pentagon. With hundreds of jobs on the line at a GE plant in Lynn, Massachusetts lawmakers have joined colleagues from both parties to keep the program alive for years by inserting hundreds of millions at a time into federal budgets.

Obama has epitomized the engine as wasteful defense spending, again eliminating it from the budget he unveiled yesterday. That puts him in league with fiscally conservative House members backed by the Tea Party movement who, in defiance of GOP House leadership, want to kill the project.

Newly elected conservatives such as Representative Allen West of Florida, a 22-year Army veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, are leading the charge.

“I’m a military man. I do the common-sense thing. Failed programs, redundancies . . . that’s what we’ve got to eliminate up here in Washington,’’ said West, who is working to round up opposition to GE’s engine. A Tea Party favorite, he delivered the keynote address Saturday night at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a premier event on the political schedule.

Representative Thomas J. Rooney, a Florida Republican whose district adjoins West’s and has numerous constituents who work for Pratt & Whitney, wrote to fellow House members saying he will try to strip the funding, and asked for their support.

“I look at why these freshmen were elected and why I was elected two years ago, and this thing falls right in the wheelhouse of what the American people expect,’’ he said.

A temporary budget measure funding the engine, which GE Aviation wants to build with Rolls-Royce, expires March 4. GE and Pratt & Whitney, which wants to kill the GE funding, have blanketed Washington publications with full-page ads in an escalating lobbying war.

Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat whose district includes Lynn, said it would be a knee-jerk reaction to cut the program. Tierney, citing the prime argument for developing two engines for the jet, said the prospect of long-term savings from competition should win over new Republicans.

“If they want to be thoughtful about it and really talk about savings and being austere, then I think the argument that should persuade them is you need the alternate engine, you need the competition — for national security, for innovation reasons, and to save money,’’ he said.

Fiscal arguments are hardly the only factor in play. Parochial interests over jobs are part of the equation. Pratt & Whitney has a campus in West’s district, while GE Aviation has plants in Boehner’s district, as well as in Lynn.

Republicans have typically been reluctant to cut defense spending. That is changing.

“Every dollar and cent in the federal budget is on the table. That includes the Pentagon,’’ majority leader Eric Cantor said.

A few GOP freshmen support the GE engine. Frank Guinta, a New Hampshire Republican elected with help from Tea Party activists, said he was a “strong supporter’’ of GE’s engine because of the jobs in his district.

One vote it will not receive is that of Representative Barney Frank’s. While the Newton Democrat has voted for the engine in the past out of loyalty to fellow delegation members, he will not this year. “I don’t want to just cut the second engine, I want to cut the whole plane,’’ he said.

Theo Emery can be reached at