The Republican-led House and Senate are at odds over whether to fund new nuclear weapons initiatives proposed by the Bush administration. The Senate’s fiscal year 2004 energy and water appropriations bill, approved Sept. 16, funds continued research on the controversial nuclear earth penetrator, accelerated nuclear test readiness, and exploration of new weapons technologies. Meanwhile, the House version, approved July 18, makes considerable cuts to these items. (See ACT, September 2003.) The differences will be hammered out in a House-Senate conference, likely to take place in October.
The administration has been encouraging Congress to modernize the nuclear arsenal for some time. More recently, a Sept. 11 “Statement of Administration Policy” sent to the Senate prior to the appropriations vote noted that full funding for nuclear research programs “will help lay the foundation for transforming the [n]ation’s Cold War era nuclear stockpile into a modern deterrent suited for the 21st century.” A post-vote letter from Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham to GOP Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.) and John Warner (Va.) praised the Senate for keeping the president’s nuclear weapons initiatives in the bill and urged the senators to ensure the measures are sustained in conference with the House.
Attempts by Democratic senators to block the measures largely fell short. An amendment on the floor by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to eliminate the funding for the earth penetrator and for new weapons technologies, as well as to bar funds from being used to shorten the test readiness period, failed 53-41. Democrats achieved a small victory, however, when the Senate passed by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), which would restrict weapons funding to research only and ensure that the administration consults with Congress before developing new nuclear weapons. The amendment mirrors one approved by the Senate during debate over the defense authorization bill in May. (See ACT, June 2003.)
During her floor speech, Feinstein warned that developing new weapons will harm U.S. nonproliferation objectives: “Indeed, by seeking to develop new nuclear weapons ourselves, we send a message that nuclear weapons have a future battlefield role and utility.” Kennedy stressed that appropriating the funds would be the first in a series of destabilizing measures that could make nuclear war more likely, and he told The New York Times Sept. 17, “We are fully committed to staying after the issue.” But Republican Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) had a different take. “[W]e now have the capability of delivering weapons very precisely. Wouldn’t it be better to do that, even in a nuclear context, than the one we are in now?” he asked during the Sept. 15 floor debate.