By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007
Congress is moving to change the direction of the Bush administration's nuclear weapons program by demanding the development of a comprehensive post-Sept. 11, 2001, nuclear strategy before it approves funding a new generation of warheads.
"Currently there exists no convincing rationale for maintaining the large number of existing Cold War nuclear weapons, much less producing additional warheads," the House Appropriations Committee said in its report, released last week, on the fiscal 2008 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. The full House is expected to vote on the measure this week.
The Bush administration had sought $88 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program next year so that cost and engineering studies could be completed and a decision could be reached on congressional approval to build the first RRW model, with the first new warheads ready by 2012.
The House already passed the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Bill, which reduced RRW funding and called for development of a new nuclear weapons strategy before steps are taken to produce new warheads.
While the Senate has yet to act on the authorization or appropriations measure, the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees are expected to follow the House's example by reducing proposed RRW spending and demanding development of a new nuclear weapons policy.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that handles strategic weapons, said in an interview last week that she expects that the question of future U.S. nuclear weapons policy will be passed to the next administration, since the Bush White House is preoccupied with other subjects.
The House appropriations bill eliminates RRW funding and directs the Energy and Defense departments and the intelligence agencies to develop a "comprehensive nuclear defense strategy based on current and projected global threats." And it slows down funding of the Bush administration's program to modernize the facilities where nuclear weapons are built, stored and dismantled.
"These multi-billion dollar initiatives are being proposed in a policy vacuum without any administration statement on the national security environment that the future nuclear deterrent is designed to address," the report said. "[I]t is premature to proceed with further development of the RRW or a significant nuclear complex modernization plan."
The committee pointed out that neither the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review last year nor the administration's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review "provided a long term nuclear weapons strategy or the defined total nuclear stockpile requirements for the 21st century."
The House bill more than triples the amount the Bush administration is asking for dismantlement of old warheads and adds $30 million to modify a facility at the Nevada nuclear test site so it can be used for dismantling weapons. At present, the only facility that does that work is the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Tex., which also refurbishes currently deployed weapons.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee handling the nuclear program, has indicated he is thinking along the same lines, according to a senior Democratic staffer familiar with his views. "The Tauscher approach makes sense," the staff member said.
He noted that senior Bush administration officials had not publicly supported the RRW program despite a request by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a former Appropriations subcommittee chairman and a proponent of the new warheads. The Senate subcommittee is expected to provide limited funds for the program "so we have a couple of years to gather information while the next administration lays out future requirements."