WASHINGTON — After 17 controversial years of the B-2 stealth bomber, congressional negotiators effectively sealed the fate yesterday of the last Cold War bomber program, deciding against making any more.
The government quit ordering the distinctive, bat-shaped bomber in 1994. But in the years that followed, it has handed out more than $600 million to keep factories from closing entirely. The last B-2 ordered by the Air Force is being assembled in Southern California.
In a bid to produce nine more planes, the House included $331 million in its defense bill to restart plants in Texas and Seattle and expand one in California. But with the Clinton administration threatening to veto the entire $247 billion defense-spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, House members backed down yesterday in negotiations with the Senate.
The compromise measure retains the $331 million, but negotiators agreed it would not be spent on new bombers.
That’s fine with the Defense Department, which for three years has opposed building bombers in favor of spending money on newer weapons. “We have always maintained that restarting B-2 production would be a serious mistake,” spokeswoman Susan Hansen said.
The money could be used to modify the existing 21-plane fleet or close the remaining production line. The cost of restarting production would have been $1 billion, according to the Air Force.
The House and Senate must vote on the spending bill.
Even with the money, it seems unlikely that the bomber’s contractors, led by Northrop Grumman Corp., which is based outside Los Angeles, would be able to expand their workforce from 10,000 to 18,000 as they had hoped.
Ten years ago, during peak production of the bomber – which was intended to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union – the program employed almost 40,000 people.
“We probably lose,” Larry Hamilton, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, said about a denial of start-up money. Hamilton declined to comment further on how the decision would affect his company.
The compromise bill calls for establishing a commission to study the B-2’s future. In the struggle for limited defense dollars, fighter planes won over bombers as lawmakers:
* Approved funding to build 20 F-18 Navy fighters, made in St. Louis.
* Agreed to spend $2.2 billion for the new F-22 Air Force fighter, made mainly in Georgia and Seattle.
* Approved seven new V-22 Marine tilt-rotor planes, built in Pennsylvania and assembled in Texas.
* Agreed to spend $474 million on a national missile defense.
* Cut spending on a new carrier from $345 million to just $50 million, while giving the Navy $720 million for a new destroyer.
* Agreed to spend nearly $2 billion for nine more C-17s, the giant Air Force cargo jet used to haul troops and supplies in and out of Bosnia.
* Cut production funding for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter, and instead allocated $53 million for upgrading work, to be done in Texas.
Adoption. A compromise among senators has cleared the way for Congress to resume work on a bill aimed at moving children out of abusive families and foster care.
A bipartisan group agreed to spend $2.4 billion over five years to offer money and Medicaid coverage to more families who adopt children. Under current law, only children whose biological parents are poor are eligible for this federal aid.
Overall, the measure redirects federal adoption policy, removing the requirement that states try to reunite families in all cases.
An estimated 500,000 children are in foster care now, and about 100,000 are waiting to be adopted. Most of these children spend an average of three years moving from home to home.
It is unclear if the House, which passed its version 416-5, will go along with $2.4 billion in new spending.
Indian gambling. Legislation passed by the Senate would bar the Clinton administration from approving new Indian casinos without the consent of the governor or state legislature.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R., Wyo.) said the amendment to an Interior Department spending bill would guarantee that local communities have some say on where new gambling operations are placed.
Interior Department officials opposed the measure, which was approved by voice vote Thursday, but said there were no pending casino proposals that it would affect.
The amendment is not in the House-passed version of the Interior spending bill, and negotiators from the two sides will have to decide whether it will be included in the final measure.
By Richard Parker and Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU