President Obama won a major victory in the Senate Tuesday in a dogfight that has major, long-term implications for his agenda.
The Senate, by a vote of 58-40, approved an amendment proposed by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to strip $1.75 billion in funding for the F-22 fighter. Levin worked hand in hand to kill the F-22 money with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"There was an extensive effort by the White House," said Levin. "The president really needed to win this vote, not just in terms of the merits of the F-22 issue itself, but in terms of the reform agenda."
The vote had become a proxy fight against the power of the military-industrial complex, a term coined by President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address.
"It's What Eisenhower Warned us About," tweeted McCain before the vote. The F-22s have not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan and military experts agree they're not suited for American campaigns, yet lobbying and regional concerns have kept the program funded year after year. The victory over the military-industrial complex is arguably its most significant setback since World War II. For McCain, it was "probably the most impactful amendment that I have seen in this body on almost any issue."
"Up until the last couple hours, this vote was in doubt," McCain said. "And so I'd like to give credit to the president for being very firm on this issue and to the Secretary of Defense, who gave as strong a speech as I've ever heard in my life."
Obama had threatened to veto any bill that authorized the F-22 funding.
Forty-two Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, joined 15 Republicans to defeat the F-22.
Levin and McCain did a victory lap up to the third floor of the Senate after the vote, sitting down in the press gallery to celebrate.
As Eisenhower first defined it, the military-industrial complex is an alliance of military officers who demand ever greater funding, industry that wants the same and home-state senators and representatives who are more concerned about jobs at home than the ultimate value of the program.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' defection from the alliance broke its back.
Yet 14 Democrats and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, still voted with the military-industrial complex. A review of the roll call shows that regional interests played a larger part than ideology.
Democrats who voted to support the F-22 spending: Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.), Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray (Wash.), Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall (N.M.) (Udall's Colorado cousin, Mark, voted to kill it), Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Max Baucus and Jon Tester (Mont.), Bob Byrd (W.V.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.).
The same geographic pattern holds on the GOP side. Republicans who voted to kill the funding: Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Barrasso and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), McCain and Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), who is the Senate's most outspoken foe of wasteful spending, but not joined by his GOP colleague Sen. Jim Inhofe.
Sen. John Ensign of Nevada joined Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) joined Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in opposing the F-22. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) voted against the military industrial complex even while his Democratic colleague from the state, Shaheen, voted with it. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined the Democrat, Begich, in supporting spending for the planes. The same bipartisan dynamic was at work in Indiana with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar and Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh voting on the side of reform. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) stood against the program; Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was for it.
Obama's predilection for compromise and common ground couldn't come into play in the F-22 issue, because it wasn't a question of how much funding, but whether it should be funded at all.
"It would be hard to find any kind of middle ground on this issue," McCain noted afterward.
UPDATE: The White House renewed its veto threat Tuesday, in case the House was giving any thought to reinserting the funding in conference committee. "If that money is there, that bill will be vetoed," Robert Gibbs said in response to a question from The Advocate during the White House press briefing.
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America