Funding Fight Puts Boehner In Tough Spot

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A move by the House this week to cut the funding of a military aircraft engine is pitting those calling for drastic federal spending cuts against those, like House Speaker John Boehner, who support the project.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The battle over government spending turned personal this week for House Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican supported a huge military contract that benefitted his state, and that put him at odds with his pledge to dramatically cut spending. The House voted to kill the contract.

Ann Thompson of member station WVXU sent this story from Cincinnati about the impact on Ohio.

ANN THOMPSON: In the sprawling GE Aviation parking lot along I-75, just north of Cincinnati, Jim Wolf headed back to his truck today to get a few tools. The construction company he works for is doing its first job for General Electric and hopes to do more.

Wolf was sorry to hear that the House this week voted to end a project that he sees as critical for more than a thousand workers in and around Cincinnati.

Mr. JIM WOLF: Im a pro-military guy, so Im disappointed its going to be cancelled. We need them to do well. We'd just started doing some work here, and we hoped to get our foot in the door to do more work here.

THOMPSON: GE Aviation has had decades of local support for this Joint Strike Fighter engine that its been developing with Rolls Royce for 15 years. Pratt & Whitney has the main contract, but the government funded this one to compete with it.

GEs engine is massive. Its 18 feet long and would sell for as much as $15 million each.

At an October rally before thousands of employees here, GE Aviation president David Joyce stood with local politicians and said from the F-16s to the B-2 Bombers, many of Americas fighter planes are powered by GE engines.

Mr. DAVID JOYCE (President, GE Aviation): And today, were working on the next great American jetfighter, the Joint Strike Fighter, powered by our engine, the F-136.

(Soundbite of applause)

THOMPSON: But theres no cheering now. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others told Congress that the project was a waste of money, and the House voted to cancel it.

Georgia State political science professor Jeffrey Lazarus studies earmarks and government spending. He says while a majority in the House are heeding the speakers call to cut spending, John Boehner supports the program in his districts backyard.

Professor JEFFREY LAZARUS (Political Science, Georgia State): Some may say ironic, somebody more critical of Speaker Boehner might say hypocritical, but its something thats really, really common among all members of Congress, that whats considered pork-barrel spending is in the eye of the beholder.

THOMPSON: Lazarus says congressional pet projects are often judged by different standards. He says while the anti-earmark movement gains steam, that doesnt mean some members wont try to find a way to keep their projects funded.

In fact, even though the House has killed the project, the Senate could still work to reinstate it. GE officials argue that competing contracts keep the costs down, and cancelling the engine would be wasting money.

Military analyst Loren Thompson is with the conservative policy think tank the Lexington Institute. He doesnt disagree with GEs argument but says the immediate concerns are taking precedent.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Lexington Institute): The problem that the General Electric engine ran into is that the government is simply out of money. Its true that down the road, having competition might have saved money. But in the near term, all it meant was a higher price tag on the program because the government had to create a second engine in order to have a competition.

THOMPSON: Thompson agrees that this puts Speaker Boehner in a most difficult position. Boehner is leading his partys effort to dramatically cut government spending while supporting a costly engine that the Pentagon says it no longer wants.

For NPR News, Im Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

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