In a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago this month, Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out the case for discontinuing the F-22 Raptor: "The F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict." In English that means that plane has not been used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Gates wants to slay the beast, but he understands you have to feed the beast before you can kill it. So the administration supports ending the F-22's long $65 billion flight -- after seven new planes budgeted for 2010 bring the total fleet number to 187, which would be a good thing if America ends up in war against a superpower with high-tech planes.
Gates' last boss, President George W. Bush, wanted to kill the F-22, but could not. So President Obama upped the ante and put his political capital on the line by threatening to veto a $680 billion defense-spending bill if the Senate did not blue pencil $1.7 billion -- the price tag for the seven Raptors.
The gambit paid off Tuesday as the Senate voted 58-40 to delete that funding -- proving that on rare occasion, Congress can do the right thing. At least after the right thing is larded and watered down.
While 15 Republicans voted with Obama, 14 Democrats -- including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- voted instead to spend $1.7 billion on F-22s, which the Pentagon never asked for. At least when it comes on spending on defense, Boxer and Feinstein are no doves.
I asked the senators' offices: What were they thinking?
"As Sen. Boxer said in her statement, there are compelling arguments on both sides," spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz explained. And: "Sen. Boxer believes that, given the significant investment we have made in the F-22 program and the fact that we have not seen a conclusive study indicating that 187 F-22s are enough, this is not the time to shut down production of these aircraft."
Feinstein's office released a statement that voiced Boxer's belief that 187 F-22s are not enough and warned that the "closure of the F-22 line would also cost California 6,500 direct jobs and 14,000 indirect jobs."
Where did those numbers come from? I didn't hear back.
But I think Obama got it right when he said, "At a time when we're fighting two wars and facing a serious deficit, this would have been an inexcusable waste of money."
A key vote in support of Obama came from former rival Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who argued that the F-22 controversy "has to do with how fundamentally disconnected Congress has become from those who sent them to Washington to begin with, and at what cost is Congress willing to have the American people continue to subsidize its spendthrift ways. It has to do with whether Congress serves as a trustee of the American war fighter and taxpayers or the military-industrial-congressional complex."
Now the big question is whether the 58-40 Senate vote will prevail. Or will it become a brief shining, showboat moment, easily undone by a House vote or behind-closed-doors conference committee?
More is at stake than the $1.7 billion. As Gates put it so well, "If we can't get this right, what on earth can we get right?"