That was the sound of Congress throwing down the gauntlet and defying the president of the United States to put up or shut up.

In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that the U.S. can ill afford Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) vaunted air superiority fighter -- priced at a budget-busting $140 million apiece. Gates suggested that Congress fund a limited Raptor production in the fiscal 2010 defense budget and then call it quits at a grand total of 187 planes.

Congress ... hungry!
Congress wants more. Last week, the House approved a 2010 budget including $369 million as a "down payment" on a dozen new F-22s. Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended spending $1.75 billion to buy seven F-22s outright.

Now, the full Senate may vote otherwise. But if the Senate endorses its committee recommendation, the F-22 will head into reconciliation between the House and Senate versions -- and thence to a White House where President Obama has threatened to veto it.

Pick your battles, Obama
Far from shunning that fight, House Democrats including Rep. John Murtha seem to be spoiling for it. Murtha, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, wants not three, not seven ... not even a dozen more F-22s -- but 20. (Murtha also backs buying Boeing's (NYSE:BA) F/A-18 to fill the gap while Lockheed's other new warplane, the F-35, ramps up.)

Fools, I'm all in favor of fiscal restraint -- and Lockheed and Boeing both have Pentagon money pouring out of their ears already -- but I've got real doubts that Obama will follow through on his veto threat. Why?

  • Mainly, because the F-22 backers have a point. It's a dangerous world out there, what with North Korea continuing nuclear material production and testing, and Iran making periodic threats to disrupt oil supplies. Do we really need more F-22s? Maybe not, but better safe than sorry.
  • Second, according to Senate Republicans, 95,000 jobs at Lockheed and suppliers ranging from Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) to Honeywell (NYSE:HON) to General Electric (NYSE:GE) are directly or indirectly tied to the F-22. And that's just building the plane. There's something to be said for spending money on homegrown defense projects in a recession.
  • Last but not least ... Obama wants to veto a $680 billion bill because he doesn't like how $369 million (or, alternatively, $1.75 billion) within it is being allocated? Um, $369 million is minuscule, Mr. President ...

Foolish takeaway
The veto is an empty threat. The F-22 will live to fly another day.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.