|FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Volume 57, Number 3
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Congress Cools on New Nukes
by Benn Tannenbaum
The administration’s drive for new nuclear weapons funding got considerable national press attention last year, when both houses ultimately gave approval. Curiously, there was less media coverage of this year’s battles over the fiscal year 2005 requests for new nukes—and yet almost offstage, the political ground shifted somewhat against the request.
This year, the Bush Administration’s push for new nuclear weapons met resistance from a surprising source: Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), Chairman of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Hobson previously supported the administration’s nuclear programs, but June 9 he refused to approve its request of $95 million for new nukes research, including support for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP or “bunker buster”), the Modern Pit Facility, advanced concepts nuclear weapons, and decreasing the time needed to prepare for a nuclear weapon test.
When Hobson opened the subcommittee session that refused the funds, he said: “Much of the DOE weapons complex is still sized to support a Cold War stockpile. The NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] needs to take a ‘time-out’ on new initiatives until it completes a review of its weapons complex in relation to security needs, budget constraints, and this new stockpile plan.” The subcommittee approved the cut; the full committee ratified it June 18.
The Appropriations Committee action followed several close votes on new nuclear weapons in the House and Senate. On May 20 for example, the House voted narrowly, by 214- 204, to defeat an amendment offered by Representatives Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), John Spratt (D-S.C.), Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) and Tom Allen (D-Me.). This amendment to the defense authorization bill was intended to move funding for the nuclear bunker buster and advanced concepts nuclear weapons over to fund more intelligence on locating underground bunkers and enemy strongholds.
The vote was the closest the House has come in years to actually stopping new nuclear weapons. Supporters say the chances of success are good in the next Congress. By contrast, a similar amendment was defeated last year 199-226. In 2002 the vote was 172-243. The appropriations process has seen similar progress: last year Hobson cut the FY 2004 request by only $15.5 million.
However, the outlook in the Senate is still strongly favorable to these programs. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chair of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee, is a supporter of bunker buster research and similar efforts. Further, an amendment to the defense authorization bill offered by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to remove funding for the bunker buster failed on a vote of 55-42. This is only a slight change from last year’s vote of 53-41. In their respective authorizing legislation, the House and Senate have agreed to fully fund the President’s request for new nuclear weapons.
What remains to be seen is how the political winds blow this summer, when the $95 million differences in the two appropriations bills will be resolved in House-Senate conference. Hobson is quite convinced that the NNSA is unprepared to build new nuclear weapons and that no real need for these weapons has been demonstrated. Mr. Domenici feels precisely the opposite. At least, after the House cut the program, the press began taking notice.
Benn Tannenbaum is Senior Research Associate, FAS Strategic Security Project