It's not every day that a Senate vote affecting a few aircraft and a couple of billion dollars gets on Page 1 or makes the TV news. But then it's not every day that the Senate makes a tough call against its own self-interest.
Whatever else the Senate does right or wrong this year, it did a sensible thing this week in cutting off the F-22, a Cold War fighter jet that now costs $350 million per copy to build and $44,000 per hour to fly.
This was a weapons system the Pentagon said it no longer needed. The Joint Chiefs and secretary of defense had long ago fingered the F-22 as an airborne anachronism, still aloft long after its mission had ended. The new, smaller F-35 is the future, and it supports ground operations more closely.
They had a powerful ally in Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and an even showier one in John McCain (R-AZ). Known as a combat pilot with deep roots in the military, McCain called this F-22 decision a major test for his colleagues.
Could they break their habits of fealty to campaign contributors, lobbyists and labor unions? Could they cut off a program when its sponsors had spread the fruits of its subcontracts across more than 40 states?
For many a Capitol Hill veteran, the answer was an all-too-predictable no.
But, lo, when the roll call came in, the answer was yes. By a resounding 58-40, the Senate chilled the jets. In the moments that followed, on the Hill and on the tube, nearly everyone talking about the vote did so with widened eyes. The very numbers seemed electric.
All the old cudgels had been taken up. Defenders hailed the F-22 as essential to air superiority and a major source of jobs — two killer arguments in the world of weapons procurement. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican whose state benefits from much of the F-22 spending, openly challenged the idea that the Defense Department and the White House should determine which weapons systems we needed. That was a job for Congress, the senator said, his voice rising.
And yet, the outcome was not as predicted. A different kind of calculus prevailed. The call for change seemed to resonate again, as it did in the campaign of 2008.
One reason may have been Democrats' concern that their president was losing altitude at a critical phase of the legislative calendar. He had said he would veto the entire $680 billion bill for defense if it included the F-22. It was less than half of 1 percent of the total, but it was a perfect foil for a first veto threat.
In the end, President Obama was backed by three-fourths of the Democrats, and McCain brought over 15 Republicans. Many of these votes in both parties came from senators whose states will lose at least a small piece of the F-22 pie.
If you watch Congress operate very often, you will appreciate the specialness of this moment. Consider the far more common case of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. For four days, that panel replayed the same short list of issues and questions. It was soon apparent that the goal was not to produce a coherent picture of the nominee. It was, rather, to produce a series of separate movies, each starring a different senator performing the same basic script for consumption back home.
Or consider the all-too-familiar landscape of the current battle over health care. The president's problem on that broad front is not the Republican remnant that declares total opposition to anything he proposes and calls it his Waterloo. His real problem is with the individual legislators in both parties who parse every provision of every bill for its potential effect on their own re-election — and most especially, on their sources of campaign cash. This is the dominant culture in our Congress.
That's why the F-22 skirmish was immediately inspected for implications in the health care struggle. Was this a sign the president might still overcome the profound self-interest that motivates Congress on this, his top priority? Maybe not. But it was a much better sign than a vote for more F-22s would have been.
It might even give the White House reason to hope.