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How budget-slashing Congressman Eric Cantor secured $485 million in tax dollars for a jet engine that the military doesn't need.



Rep. Eric Cantor likes to cast himself as a cost-cutting maven. Arguing that government spending is out of control, the Republican House minority whip from Henrico County talks constantly of limiting taxes and slicing government spending. His Web-based YouCut program has ordinary voters recommend where to cut billions in federal funding.

So it was curious when pro-business Cantor successfully led a fight in the House of Representatives to keep some $485 million in a defense budget in late May. The money is part of a $567-billion defense appropriation and would continue a program by Rolls Royce North America and General Electric to build an alternative engine to power Lockheed-Martin's new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Ironically, Cantor was pushing government spending that the government itself doesn't want. The Defense Department sees no need for the alternate engine or the extra expense because Lockheed-Martin has decided that another manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney, will make the engines for the F-35. A spokeswoman for Cantor says the congressman believes the alternate engine “is a worthwhile project” because it “creates jobs in Virginia and is an important national security issue.” Cantor would be “more than happy,” she says, to offset the costs on the House floor.

Why break philosophical ranks? One reason could be that Rolls Royce North America, a British company, recently located its headquarters in Chantilly in Northern Virginia. Another is that a $500 million Rolls Royce complex under construction east of Petersburg eventually would build bladed disks needed for the alternative jet engine for the F-35s. The new fighter jets will cost $382 billion overall and replace current F-15, F-18 and F-16 jet fighters that have been in service since the 1970s and 1980s and are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Richmond's business community has high hopes and a lot invested in the Rolls Royce facility. Ground was broken in October in a rural stretch of Prince George County, in part, to lead a new regional initiative to make Greater Richmond a hub of advanced manufacturing. This new sector could prove more sustainable than other industries that went belly-up in the recession, leading to thousands of lost jobs at companies such as computer chip-maker Qimonda, mass retailer Circuit City and real estate finance giant LandAmerica.

Just before the recession, former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, dipped deep into the public kitty to snag Rolls Royce. Promised were staggered payments totaling $35 million in a performance grant, $6 million from the governor's opportunity fund, $5 million for spinoff development and $8.7 million for employee training. The University of Virginia would build a special center for aviation and advanced manufacturing research with help from Virginia Tech and President Obama's stimulus package, and area community colleges would train highly skilled blue-collar workers.

The ambitious project quickly ran into turbulence. Envisioned originally were a series of factories that would make jet engines and parts for midsized corporate jets among other aircraft. After the financial crisis in 2008, and after several U.S. corporate leaders flew to Washington in private corporate jets to ask Congress for billions in bailouts, the corporate-jet market crashed, jeopardizing the region's multimillion-dollar investment.

Suddenly, a lot of money, regional pride and effort by major universities, plus grand plans to make Richmond an advanced manufacturing hub, hung in the balance. So plans shifted to make parts for the F-136 engine, a joint project by Rolls Royce and General Electric, to power the new F-35 fighter jet that will be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps possibly for the next 50 years.

“We review our business plans all the time,” Mia Walton, a Rolls Royce spokeswoman, says regarding the switch to the F-35. She says that the factory in Prince George that would make parts for the F-35 hasn't been built, and that construction may start at the end of the year. Under way is a factory at the complex that will make blades for engines used by the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and two recent Airbus models that should be completed by year's end.

George H. McLaren, who also speaks for Rolls Royce, says that while Prince George will make bladed disks for the F-136 engine, the engines themselves will be made at a Rolls factory in Indianapolis and a General Electric facility near Cincinnati. Having an alternative engine for such a big project is a good idea, McLaren says, because it creates competition and “makes two companies work against each other.”

He says that over the long term, having two companies making the engines could bring $100 billion in savings. Building two versions of engines for combat jets is not uncommon, McLaren says, noting that both Pratt and General Electric made separate engine versions for the Air Force's F-15 and F-16 aircraft. For the F-35, the single engine is highly complex because some versions of the aircraft have a vertical takeoff and landing capability that involves revolving jet-engine thrusters.

The Pentagon, however, doesn't see the big advantage of two companies making engines for the same airplane. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has supported Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies, as the sole engine-maker to save money. He's urged that the extra expense of the alternate engine be cut from the budget.

For Cantor, this isn't the first time that his actions on government spending haven't matched his rhetoric. Last year Cantor was an enthusiastic booster of plans put together by Richmond's business elite to tap some of Obama's $8 billion in stimulus funding for higher-speed rail service from Richmond to Washington. Cantor, however, had regularly scolded Obama's stimulus as wasteful, and an unhealthy expansion of government.

Virginia got only $75 million to upgrade rail service, far less than the more than $1 billion being sought. Although plans are alive to seek more federal money, Virginia faces a new problem with passenger rail. Starting in 2013, Virginia will have to start paying millions of dollars in its share of states' funding for Amtrak service, but it doesn't have the money. S

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