The U.S. House of Representatives Thursday rejected the Pentagon's plans to retire aging ships and planes.
The bipartisan vote on a defense spending blueprint for next year saves a fleet of attack jets flown by the Idaho National Guard out of Boise. The fate of that air wing provides another example of how hard it is to cut the defense budget.
President Obama's proposed Pentagon budget sought to retire the nation's fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets -- nicknamed Warthogs. That includes 22 stationed at Gowen Field in Boise.
The jets are over 30 years old. If they disappear, so too could the Idaho Air National Guard unit that maintains and flies them. Members of Congress and local officials including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter have rallied to the defense of their endangered defense employer.
"It is around a $60 million payroll that the Air Guard has at Gowen Field in Boise and around a 1,000 people," Bieter said. "So those are important numbers to us."
President Obama this week renewed his threat to veto the House version of the spending bill. The administration estimates retiring the Warthogs would save more than $4 billion over five years. Close air support missions would be picked up by the multipurpose F-35 fighter.
Veteran groups and politicians like Bieter are dubious that the F-35 can loiter over the battlefield as effectively as the aging Warthogs.
"Everyone that I talked to in the know said the [Warthogs] fly low and slow and give incredibly important cover to ground troops," Bieter said. "There's really nothing like them."
Congressional debate over defense spending priorities will probably drag on for the remainder of this year. The Senate Armed Services Committee is currently working on its own version of a defense spending blueprint for 2015. Senate Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, says he wants to keep the A-10 Warthogs flying too.
On final passage, the House approved the National Defense Authorization Act by a 325-98 vote. One of the 'no' votes came from a budget hawk whose district includes Gowen Field. In a statement, GOP Rep. Raul Labrador said he would have voted to extend the life of the A-10 jets if offered that choice alone. But he objected to other policies lumped into the $601 billion spending bill including the indefinite detention of some terrorism suspects. "I do not think it adequately protects our civil liberties and does not make the tough financial choices necessary to regain our fiscal stability," Labrador explained.
The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, suburban Seattle Congressman Adam Smith, said he had to swallow hard before casting his 'yes' vote.
“From the Navy’s request to lay up 14 ships to the A-10 to the U-2 [spy plane] and the Guard and Reserve helicopter changes to personnel costs, Congress said 'no' to the Department of Defense without offering alternatives. It is not our job to accept the department’s budget as is, but if we are to reject the Pentagon’s cost-saving measures we need to offer alternatives. We didn’t. We ducked every difficult decision," Smith fumed.