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GOP, White House Clash over Nuclear Security Provisions in Defense Bill

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

President Obama attends the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands on March 24. The Obama administration and House Republicans are clashing over nuclear security provisions in annual defense authorization legislation. President Obama attends the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands on March 24. The Obama administration and House Republicans are clashing over nuclear security provisions in annual defense authorization legislation. (Yves Herman/AFP/Getty Images)

As annual defense authorization legislation nears the House floor, the Obama administration and House Republicans continue to clash over key nuclear weapons and nonproliferation issues.

In a statement of administration policy released Monday evening, the White House says it "strongly objects" to bill language that would prevent the Energy Department from continuing to conduct nuclear security work in Russia until the Ukraine crisis -- and concerns about potential Russian violations of various arms control treaties -- are resolved.

The work includes efforts to secure buildings in Russia where sensitive nuclear materials are stored, among other projects.

"Cooperation with Russia remains an essential element to the global effort to address the threat posed by nuclear terrorism," the statement says, echoing sentiments of U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller. The State Department official said earlier this month that stopping such collaboration would be tantamount to shooting "ourselves in the foot."

According to the White House, "Critical bilateral nuclear nonproliferation activities are continuing in a number of key areas, and nuclear security is of paramount importance."

Similarly, the administration "strongly objects to the significant reduction of funds" the House bill seeks to make to the Energy Department's Second Line of Defense program, which aims to prevent the smuggling of dangerous nuclear materials across borders.

Congressional Democrats and nuclear watchdog groups, meanwhile, have complained that the Obama administration has not been requesting enough funds for the program in recent years.

"The Global Nuclear Detection Architecture integrates efforts across the U.S. government to detect the movement of nuclear and radiological materials, and the SLD program is a vital component of that architecture," the White House says. "Abruptly removing SLD capabilities would result in gaps in our defenses that cannot be filled by any other program."

House Republicans, meanwhile, are looking to introduce additional provisions that would restrict key arms control efforts. Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) will seek to offer an amendment when the bill reaches the House floor this week that would prevent the United States from spending money on complying with the New START arms reduction agreement with Russia until the Ukraine crisis is resolved and other conditions are met.

At press time, the Republican-led House Rules Committee had not yet decided whether the Lamborn measure -- along with other amendments to the bill -- would be allowed to proceed to the floor for consideration by the full House.

While House Republicans are looking to limit spending on nuclear-security and arms-control programs, they are simultaneously trying to accelerate controversial efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal with provisions that are also drawing the ire of the Obama administration.

The administration, for example, says one provision would cause the Energy Department to produce plutonium pits for nuclear weapons faster than it would need them. The House bill looks to maintain previously stated pit production goals, despite the Energy Department's recent decision to delay controversial plans to build an interoperable nuclear warhead that would replace both Navy and Air Force weapons.

Similarly, the administration objects to a provision that would accelerate the controversial production of a long-range standoff weapon, or cruise missile.

In addition to accelerating weapon modernization efforts, House Republicans also are looking for guarantees that all three legs of the so-called nuclear "triad" will be maintained. The triad includes ground-launched missiles, submarine launched missiles, and gravity bombs dropped from airplanes.

Language already in the bill, to which the administration objects, would require that every intercontinental ballistic missile silo currently containing a deployed missile be preserved in "warm status."

A proposed amendment to the bill, offered by Representative Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose home state hosts missile silos, would state that it "is the policy of the United States to operate, sustain and modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems."

House Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to study the costs and the need for maintaining the entire triad, following a recent report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation that argued the current modernization plan is too costly to implement.

An amendment by Representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill) would direct the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office "to conduct an analysis of the justification and rationale for maintaining the nuclear triad, and to identify any excess that may result in cost savings."

Another measure, by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), would require the Congressional Budget Office "to update, on an annual basis, [its] report on the projected costs of U.S. nuclear forces."

Democrats offered similar amendments at the committee level, but the Republican majority allowed only more narrow provisions requiring less formal, oral briefings from the Obama administration on those issues.

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