Lawmakers battle over jets

While ceding some ground to President Obama on high-profile weapons cuts, lawmakers are cutting money for training and spare parts to pay for other weapons Obama doesn't want and their own pet projects.

The push-and-pull is playing out within a massive, $626 billion funding bill for the Pentagon that is being debated on the Senate floor. All told, the bill denies Obama about $4 billion he sought for operations and maintenance accounts while providing $2.5 billion for C-17 cargo jets and $2.7 billion worth of pet projects sought by lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., launched a withering but probably futile assault on the decision by the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to add 10 unrequested C-17s to the U.S. fleet of the planes, raising its size to 223. McCain and the Pentagon say the Air Force already has plenty.

Supporters of the C-17, which is assembled in Long Beach, Calif., though its parts are made across the country, have an overwhelming edge and are virtually certain to defeat McCain's amendment to cut the planes from the bill. And they say that unlike the much-criticized F-22 fighter, the C-17 is being used in ongoing military operations.

"The C-17 is a proven, combat-tested airlift capability that is essential to the fight we are in right now and has been a workhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. "With the war in Afghanistan heating up and the war in Iraq continuing, our airlift needs are only growing."

Bond is also a key supporter of adding $512 million for nine unrequested F-18/A Navy fighters, funded under within an operations and maintenance account for request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would be assembled in St. Louis.

Critics say curbs to operations and maintenance accounts mean less money is available for fuel, spare parts, training and military exercises or to repair and replace equipment damaged in arduous conditions overseas. Cuts affect the readiness of U.S. troops.

"The (operations and maintenance) account is the operational lifeblood of our military forces," said Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information think tank. "Without it, the planes don't fly, the troops don't train, and the forces can't fight."

McCain has offered an amendment to the measure to cut out the 10 C-17s, but he faces uphill odds in a chamber filled with senators eager to preserve jobs in their states.

"What we would do in this bill is effectively fund the purchase of new aircraft that we neither need nor can afford with critical sustainment money," he said. "That would have a significant impact on our ability to provide the day-to-day operational funding that our servicemen and women and their families deserve."