With an oversize House freshman class eager to trim the deficit even if it means pruning the Pentagon, the defense industry is scrambling to ingratiate itself with the Washington newcomers and temper their budget-cutting zeal.
For the first time in its 91-year history, for instance, the Aerospace Industries Association is reaching out at the grass-roots level and contracting with high-powered strategic communications firms to hone its message.
General Electric and other companies with specific programs on the line are also ramping up their activity. At the end of last year, G.E. dispatched its lobbyists to plead with the White House Office of Management and Budget to keep a controversial and expensive contract to build an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on life support while Congress debates killing it.
"Everyone that is involved in public policy took a look this fall and recognized the fact that you really do have a new and different Congress," said Marion Blakey, president of AIA. Since the freshmen had focused so intensely on jobs and the economy during the 2010 midterms, where they stand on defense is something of a blank slate, she added.
So AIA -- whose members make airplanes, rockets and drones -- has hired top-shelf spin doctors at SKDKnickerbocker and the DCI Group to come up with a plan to protect Pentagon business. They're conducting focus groups in Philadelphia and Ohio and a national phone survey with a special tea party sample, according to an outline of their work obtained by POLITICO.
Blakey has been struck by the newcomers' willingness to take risks. Several freshmen have told her they are content to serve one term, which makes their votes much more unpredictable and increases the need for quick briefings on the importance of the aerospace programs.
AIA also is dispatching corporate executives to publicly make the pitch. In January, Blakey and Boeing executive James Albaugh met with reporters to talk about the impact of potential cuts to defense spending.
"This is not a question of excess and "we don't need it,'" Blakey said. "We're talking about the fundamentals of how this nation keeps its technological edge," she said, referring to the high-tech advances that are transforming the nation's weapons systems.
So far, those messages have resonated with some freshmen but certainly not all of them.
The first test to determine how the new members will vote came last month on an amendment to strip $450 million from the current Pentagon budget for GE's alternative jet engine -- a savings long sought by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Forty-seven of the House's 96 freshmen voted to strip it from the budget.
Within defense circles, insiders also are watching how the 13 new members of the House Armed Services Committee will respond to potential program cuts. All of them are being courted heavily by industry players -- and especially engine rivals GE and Pratt & Whitney, which manufactures the primary jet engine for the F-35.
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) greased the skids for the contractors by hosting a "Lucky 13" fundraiser for new committee members and inviting top defense companies to rub elbows and contribute cash to members' campaign committees, Bloomberg News reported.
So far, though, the results are mixed, even at the committee level.
In the case of the GE engine, the newest Armed Services Committee members were split. Five voted against McKeon, who wants to continue funding the program, and eight stuck by the chairman.
First-term Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said he listened to arguments from both GE and Pratt & Whitney as well as other lawmakers before deciding the engine is a waste of money. "This was, for me, arising out of my passion to get federal spending under control," he said.
But freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a former auto dealer who was also courted by both companies, decided to stick with the two-engine program after being convinced that the competition would eventually drive costs down. "I treated it as a business decision," Rigell said. "It's a data-driven decision."
GE is now working to get funding restored for its alternative engine during House-Senate budget negotiations.
The company has blanketed the Beltway with advertisements for its engine. And it is tapping into a reservoir of goodwill built with key veteran lawmakers through traditional lobbying efforts and small-business symposiums in members' hometowns.
Those symposiums, which are aimed at linking suppliers in states such as Ohio, Washington and Alabama with its vast engine business, often become a showcase for House members that can generate local headlines.
Although underwritten by GE, the symposiums aren't considered lobbying activity and their costs aren't included in the $39 million the company reported spending last year on influencing members of Congress.
Spokesman Rick Kennedy said local chambers of commerce or state departments of commerce often invite GE and other companies to put on these events in hopes of spurring economic development. "They're not unusual," Kennedy said.
Still, it is one more way for GE to build some goodwill in its quest to keep its engine program afloat.
Late last year, the company feared Gates would use a continuing resolution, a temporary budget measure, to cut off funding for the engine.
"We were running on fumes," Kennedy said, adding the company needs assurance that funding will continue so it can keep the program going through a critical phase of development.
GE ally Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) urged White House Budget Director Jack Lew to clearly articulate that the funding will continue. Behind the scenes, GE dispatched its lobbyists to reinforce the message. That team included Nancy Dorn, Eric Pelletier and Joshua Raymond -- all of whom have worked for the OMB.
Lew provided those assurances in a letter to Brown, but administration officials said it wasn't because of the lobbying blitz. In fact, President Barack Obama agrees with Gates and wants to kill off the second engine.
"This has been our position from the start," said OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly. "As administration officials said last year in the lead-up to the first continuing resolution, the administration wouldn't take any action on the JSF until Congress acts, and there would not be a stop-work order."
Stanley Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications and an expert on defense spending, predicted that as the debate over Pentagon cuts begins to target other specific programs, such as the GE engine, and the industry has more time to make its case about potential job losses, early voting patterns will change.
"You're going to get a lot of members fighting like hell to protect things in their districts," he said.