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Jet Engine Veto Threat Could Still Scotch ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal

After 17 years of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the next bill authorizing the Department of Defense’s budget will contain a provision instructing the Pentagon to repeal the military’s ban on open gay service after its Working Group issues its guidance for doing so. And the healthy margin by which the amendment cleared the House floor — 234 to 194 — indicates that the already politically sacrosanct defense bill has a similarly healthy likelihood of full passage in the chamber, probably today. But that doesn’t mean the bill is out of the woods quite yet.

One of the amendments to the bill that didn’t pass last night was a measure to strip out $485 million worth of funding for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. President Obama, backing Defense Secretary Bob Gates, announced yesterday that he’ll veto a defense bill that contains the engine. “This program is a perfect example of wasteful spending that Congress must begin to address, and I am disappointed that our amendment failed,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the amendment’s main sponsor, said in a statement after last night’s vote. “I hope we can work in conference with the Senate to eliminate this program once and for all.” They’ll have to. The Senate mark-up of the bill managed not to include the money for the engine.

It’s unclear what Senate Republican strategy is going to be for the defense bill. Only one Republican, Susan Collins (R-Maine), voted for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, and several others, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), were angry at the measure’s passage in committee last night. There would be no shortage of cognitive dissonance if the Republican caucus filibustered over a half-trillion for defense and over $150 billion for two wars just months before an election.

But the veto threat could give them a way out of the dilemma. If the conferees are unable to strip the funding for the engine out, Obama — who last night said repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would “help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive” — would have to choose between infuriating his defense secretary or abandoning one of his central promises to a key Democratic constituency.

After Blumenaeur’s amendment failed, Gates’ spokesman, Geoff Morrell, emailed reporters, “We don’t want nor need the extra engine, but this is just one step in a long journey and Secretary Gates is committed to staying engaged in this process the whole way, including if necessary ultimately recommending President Obama veto this legislation.” All eyes will be on the House-Senate conference.

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