By Halimah Abdullah, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — One day after Arizona Sen. John McCain forged an unusual bipartisan alliance with the White House on cutting $1.75 billion in increased spending for the controversial F-22 jet fighter, congressional Democratic leaders pressured lawmakers to drop the matter to clear the way for a controversial hate crimes provision in the defense spending measure.
The move, backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sparked heated debate on the Senate floor as McCain unsuccessfully sought to remove the hate crimes amendment, known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, from the broader defense spending measure on the grounds that the two matters are unrelated.
The provision, named for Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and left to die in 1998, would extend protection under the federal hate crimes law to people who've been attacked based on sexual orientation, disabilities, gender or gender identity.
The Democratic leadership attached the hate crimes amendment to the annual defense authorization bill because the military spending measure must pass. Opponents say such crimes are already covered by state laws.
"I've watched the defense authorization bill move its way through Congress and occasionally, including at other times, I've seen amendments put on the bills which are non-germane," McCain said on the Senate floor. "But I haven't seen the majority leader of the Senate, whose responsibility is to move legislation through the Senate, take a totally non-relevant, all-encompassing controversial piece of legislation and put it on a bill that is as important to the nation's security as this legislation is.
"We're breaking new ground here," McCain said. " . . . I'm deeply, deeply disappointed and I would question anyone's priorities, anyone's priorities, who puts this kind of legislation ahead of the needs of the men and women who are serving our military with bravery, courage and distinction."
McCain sided with the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers against a faction of military leaders, airmen who favor the F-22 and members of Congress — including Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss — whose districts benefit from the aircraft's construction.
A provision in the $679.8 billion defense authorization bill calls for spending $1.75 billion to build seven additional F-22 fighter jets. Gates opposes the measure and instead wants to cap production of the F-22 at 187 and replace the planes, parts of which are manufactured in Georgia, with the F-35, which has parts produced in Texas.
Both planes are built by Lockheed Martin, which has publicly stayed out of the fray but has defended the F-22's performance after the Air Force disputed media reports of Pentagon tests that found the fighter jets need 30 hours of upkeep for every hour of flying time. The Pentagon tests also reportedly found that just over half of the fleet has been available for missions in the past five months, and the planes haven't been used in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, the White House renewed a veto threat of any legislation that includes increased funding for F-22 production. On Monday, President Barack Obama wrote McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman, urging them to "approve our request to end production of the F-22."
The Senate could vote on the defense bill this week. Last month, the House approved a version of the defense bill that includes $369 million as a down payment on 12 additional F-22s.
Chambliss criticized Obama's veto threat and said the Pentagon's decision was driven by budgetary pressures, puts the nation at risk from future military threats and will result in huge job losses.
"If we do not have the F-22, our ability to maintain air dominance and air superiority is in jeopardy," Chambliss said Tuesday.
McCain in turn was deeply critical of the Democratic leadership's motives in tabling discussion of capping F-22 production and putting forth the hate crimes provision. He warned that such political maneuvering would make it difficult for the Obama administration to shift spending priorities in the massive Pentagon budget.
"Senator Reid's priority is not the defense of the nation and what needs to be done," McCain said Wednesday. "This is about whether the president will be able to sustain his program on what weapon systems we need for the good of country or if parochial issues will prevail."