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House Democratic Bid to Question Nuclear Weapons Plan Fails in Panel Vote

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Then-California Lt. Governor John Garamendi speaks during a 2009 public meeting in San Francisco. Garamendi, now a U.S. congressman, tried to add provisions to the annual defense authorization bill on Wednesday that would require studies of the cost and need of certain nuclear weapons. Then-California Lt. Governor John Garamendi speaks during a 2009 public meeting in San Francisco. Garamendi, now a U.S. congressman, tried to add provisions to the annual defense authorization bill on Wednesday that would require studies of the cost and need of certain nuclear weapons. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

House Democrats on Wednesday sought to include in the annual defense authorization bill requirements for formal studies and reports on the necessity of various nuclear weapons and how much it would cost to maintain them.

The minority party in the House Armed Services Committee, however, had to settle for more narrow provisions requiring only less formal, oral briefings from the Obama administration on these issues. The Republican majority rejected Democratic amendments that went any further.

The Democratic effort followed a January report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies that asserted the current U.S. plan for modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal is so expensive that it could not realistically be implemented.

Congress and the executive branch do not yet fully know the cost of the plan's various components, said the report. Its sole recommendation was for lawmakers to require the administration "to annually produce an integrated nuclear deterrence budget" that projects the full cost of each system in the nuclear arsenal.

The version of the defense authorization bill that the House committee approved on Wednesday does not include provisions that would require anything so broad and detailed, though.

Committee Republicans accepted an amendment from Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would require the Defense secretary to address the issue of "funding requirements for nuclear deterrence beyond a 10-year budget window," but only in the form of a briefing to lawmakers.

Representative John Garamendi (D-Calif.) offered an amendment that would require the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to analyze the justification for "the size of the nuclear triad." The three "legs" of the triad are submarine-based ballistic missiles, ground-based ballistic missiles, and gravity bombs delivered by long-range aircraft.

"Do we need all three?" Garamendi asked while discussing the amendment during a full committee markup of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill. "Can we get by with one, for example, submarines only?"

Garamendi -- who called the U.S. nuclear arsenal "extremely expensive … to say nothing of dangerous" -- said the last "serious" GAO study that looked at the question of the size and justification for the nuclear arsenal was 20 years old.

"We need that information to make a rational decision for how we're going to spend the taxpayer's money," he said.

Another Garamendi amendment would have required the Defense secretary to draft a report on the feasibility of continuing to deploy B-61 gravity bombs in Europe. The bombs are set to undergo a controversial refurbishment the lawmaker said would cost from "$12 to $15 billion over the decade."

Garamendi withdrew both these proposed provisions on the basis of an agreement under which committee Republicans would accept another amendment the Democrat offered regarding a planned long-range standoff cruise missile. The adopted provision would require the Defense Department to address justification for the weapon, but only in an oral briefing to lawmakers.

Even this compromise seemed to surprise outgoing committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), who congratulated Garamendi on getting the amendment through.

"I don't believe that," McKeon said when the panel approved the Garamendi provision. "Congratulations."

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