GOP Steps Up Opposition to Obama Nuclear Agenda

(May. 28) -U.S. Representative Michael Turner (Ohio) and other Republican lawmakers have started throwing up legislative barriers to nonproliferation initiatives advanced by the Obama administration (U.S. Representative Michael Turner photo).
(May. 28) -U.S. Representative Michael Turner (Ohio) and other Republican lawmakers have started throwing up legislative barriers to nonproliferation initiatives advanced by the Obama administration (U.S. Representative Michael Turner photo).

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans have started using the legislative process to step up their opposition to the Obama administration's nuclear nonproliferation agenda (see GSN, May 20).

Members of the House Armed Services Committee last week successfully attached two amendments to the panel's $760 billion fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill. One addition would require the White House to conduct a rigorous analysis before cutting the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal beyond the amount proscribed by a recent arms control deal with Russia, while the other expresses grave concerns about the administration's recent nuclear strategy document.

The authorization bill encompasses U.S. Defense Department operations and about $7 billion for "nuclear weapons activities" at the Energy Department. The full chamber began consideration of the legislation yesterday, though it remains unclear when a final vote on the package is expected.

Republicans, and some Democrats, have already made it clear they have concerns about Barack Obama's nuclear plans, including reducing the size and role atomic warheads play in national security, given the threats posed today by rogue nations and extremist organizations.

The legislation marks the first significant step Congress has taken on Obama's sweeping nonproliferation agenda. The amendments could also be a sign of future GOP opposition as the budget process unfolds to the administration's efforts.

The White House has also come under fire from liberal Democrats who wanted the president to embrace a prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons and adopt a "sole purpose" policy, in which the U.S. atomic arsenal would exist only to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies.

"When you're following a fairly carefully nuanced policy that's intended to develop a centrist consensus, you're going to have posturing on both the left and right ends of the continuum," said Clark Murdock, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A National Security Council spokesman did not respond to a request for comment submitted Monday.

Taken together, last week's amendments "reflect a Republican agenda designed to undermine everything the current administration wants to do regardless of whether or not it's good for American security," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"This should be a signal both to the administration and to those who are reviewing these issues of the seriousness of the step that the administration has taken," Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said of his nonbinding amendment that states the administration's Nuclear Posture Review "weakens the national security of the United States by eliminating options to defense against catastrophic nuclear, biological and chemical weapons."

The report issued last month establishes policies and strategies for the U.S. nuclear deterrent over the next five to 10 years.

"There are those who would cast it as incidental ... but here in a Democratically controlled committee of the House, the House spoke with very serious reservations about the policy," Turner told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview this week. His amendment passed by a 30-28 committee vote.

Turner's measure comes in response to a pledge made in the posture review that the United States would not conduct nuclear strikes against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with global nonproliferation regimes.

That language eliminates the country's long-standing policy of "calculated ambiguity," in which U.S. leaders left open the possibility of executing a nuclear strike in response to virtually any hostile action against the United States or its allies, GOP lawmakers have argued. The new declaratory policy could lead allied nations to seek their own deterrent if they believe they are left vulnerable by a reduced U.S. nuclear umbrella, they claim.

Republicans have also taken issue with a caveat in the document that would allow Washington to set aside the policy -- dubbed "negative security assurance" -- if it appeared that biological weapons had been made dangerous enough to cause major harm to the United States.

"I don't believe they have the ability to anticipate all scenarios and that's why, disingenuously, they even say in the policy that they reserve the right to reconsider," the Ohio lawmaker said.

The language approved by the committee is "wrong and misunderstands past and current policy. It is a politically motivated amendment rather than a serious attempt to adjust or refine policy," said Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball.

"It would be a political disaster for Republicans to argue that 20 years after the end of the Cold War, given the United States' overwhelming military superiority, we should be threatening to use nuclear weapons under any and every circumstance that might jeopardize U.S. national security," he said.

A "Barry Goldwater-like" position on nuclear weapons would not serve the GOP or U.S. security well, Kimball added.

"New START" Amendment

The House Armed Services Committee also approved an amendment offered by Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) that would at least slow efforts by the administration to reduce the atomic stockpile below the levels detailed in the recently signed successor agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The pact requires Moscow and Washington to cut their respective arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 fielded delivery vehicles, with another 100 held in reserve.

Sixty-seven senators must vote to ratify the pact, meaning support from at least eight Republicans would now be mandatory. The agreement, though, has come under strong criticism from congressional GOP members who claim it could hamstring the nation's deterrent and ballistic missile defenses (see GSN, May 3).

Lamborn's amendment -- which passed by voice vote -- would require the defense secretary and the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration to submit a report to Congress justifying any future stockpile reductions.

The evaluation must certify, among other things, that the strategic environment has changed or technical measures have been implemented to improve the nuclear force's reliability; the "nuclear triad" of bomber aircraft, nuclear-capable submarines and ICBMs is preserved; and any reductions are balanced with other measures to enhance deterrence, the Colorado lawmaker said in a press release.

Any reduction could not take place until 180 days after the report was submitted to Congress.

"Rogue nations with nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to world peace and domestic security. I am concerned that Obama administration has set our nation on a path to eliminate our nuclear weapons in a time when the threat to our nation has not diminished," Lamborn said in the release.

The White House "must be prevented from enacting naive and short-sighted policies that erode our strength and weaken our national defense," he added.

The amendment is not surprising because the White House indicated that the recently completed agreement is intended to be a first step toward greater arsenal reductions, according to Murdock.

Even though the House has no say on the nuclear pact, Lamborn told GSN this week he offered the amendment because national security "is just as much a House concerns as it is a Senate concern ... the House has to approve all enabling legislation to implement that treaty."

As written, the amendment could limit the Defense Department's ability to structure its nuclear forces, not only in a potential future arms reduction agreement, but also under "New START," according to Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation chief at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

"What if there's some configuration the Pentagon thinks is in the best interests of the U.S. that is a bit under those limits?" he said.

"It certainly could be seen as a constraint on that course of action," Reif told GSN this week. "It could compromise or limit the ability of this administration or some other administration to engage in future negotiations with the Russians."

Several senators, including Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), also are asking to see the secret negotiating record of the new agreement to learn what, if any, concessions the U.S. side made to Moscow during the talks. Republicans have expressed concern that the pact includes language that would restrict the U.S. ability to deploy missile defense systems, a claim denied by the White House.

It is not necessary for the United States to maintain 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads into the indefinite future, according to Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball.

"If Russia is willing to further reduce its nuclear weapons as the United States does there's no reason why the United States needs to maintain a Cold War-sized nuclear force," he said during a telephone interview this week.

Budget Process

Both Kimball and Young predicted the amendments would not survive the fiscal 2011 budget process in their present form.

"In my mind, this is the worst of it," Young said. He noted the White House's efforts have received support from prominent Republicans, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger.

Murdock argued, though, that Lamborn's treaty amendment is likely to be accepted because it does not give the administration an "onerous" new requirement and could be viewed as a good government measure.

Lamborn and Turner said they did not foresee their measures being stripped from the authorization bill.

"My amendment will forever survive as a statement" that the House committee has serious concerns about the president's nuclear strategy, according to Turner.

Reif predicted that similar amendments would be introduced on the Senate floor when that chamber takes up its version of the defense authorization bill.

He noted that last year the Senate's No. 2 Republican, Jon Kyl (Ariz.), offered an amendment related to the then-ongoing START negotiations that resulted in the classified "Section 1251" report.

That document, which was submitted to Congress this month along with the new treaty, details a 10-year, $80 billion modernization plan for warhead-stockpile sustainment and investments in the nuclear-complex infrastructure.

"We're always going to have a debate on this," Reif told GSN.

May 28, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans have started using the legislative process to step up their opposition to the Obama administration's nuclear nonproliferation agenda (see GSN, May 20).