WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday shot down an effort to kill funding for Boeing C-17 military cargo planes that President Obama says are not needed, underscoring the turbulence the White House faces in trying to cut money for politically popular projects.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of pork-barrel spending, sided with his Democratic opponent in last year's presidential election in pushing to end the production of additional planes "that we don't need, the Pentagon doesn't want, and that we can't afford."
But a bipartisan group of senators, in a 64-34 vote, thwarted the effort to strike $2.5-billion for 10 additional C-17s from the annual defense spending bill. McCain vowed to continue to try to strip the funding from the measure.
"Some of my colleagues have attacked the C-17 as a special-interest item," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). "I agree. Investing in the C-17 is in the special interest of our war fighters. It is critical to our national security interests."
The measure must be reconciled with the House bill, which includes $674 million for three more C-17s. Whatever the final figure, the bill sent to the president is certain to include money for the planes, which are assembled in Long Beach. That would be on top of the $2.2 billion for eight C-17s included in a war-spending bill approved this year.
The vote was a victory for Chicago-based Boeing, which has gained broad political support on Capitol Hill through the purchase of the C-17's parts from 650 suppliers in 44 states.
"You can't walk through these hallways without bumping into a lobbyist from Boeing," McCain complained, challenging Obama to veto a bill that includes additional C-17s. "And, of course, there are subcontractors all over America."
Boeing has spent more than $4.9 million on lobbying for the first six months of this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
The vote was a reminder that Congress intends to fiercely guard its prerogatives -- especially the power of the purse. The $636-billion Senate defense bill includes more than 700 earmarks, items sought by senators for their home states, at a cost of about $2.7 billion. Included are $25 million to expand the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and $20 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Massachusetts.
The watchdog groups Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Project on Government Oversight, in a letter to lawmakers, called the C-17 "the earmark that will not die."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, joined McCain in opposing the additional funding.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a letter to lawmakers that the department has enough cargo planes in the fleet or on order and that buying any more would come "at the expense of other priorities."
California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, supported the additional planes.