The Senate may vote as early as today to reorganize the Department of Energy and overhaul security at the nation's weapons labs in the wake of allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage, a key senator said yesterday.
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, predicted that the Senate will quickly pass legislation to create a new, semiautonomous nuclear weapons agency within the Energy Department.
The bill, however, appears likely to run into opposition in the House of Representatives, where some members want to create a fully independent nuclear agency and others want to give the Pentagon control over the nuclear weapons complex. Together, the nationwide network of top-secret laboratories and production, assembly, and storage facilities employs more than 30,000 people and has a $6 billion annual budget.
Murkowski made his prediction at an unprecedented joint session of four Senate committees, which met to hear testimony from former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), chairman of a presidential panel that last week recommended restructuring the Energy Department. Appearing with Rudman was Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has resisted creation of a new agency in his department.
During the three-hour session, which at one point drew 32 senators, Richardson agreed to have aides work with Senate staffers on compromise language that could be attached to the fiscal 2000 intelligence authorization bill. That measure, which sets the government's spending on intelligence, is scheduled to go to the Senate floor today.
As the morning hearing concluded, Rudman summed up his continuing points of disagreement with Richardson. He said the secretary favors an internal reorganization that would establish a new undersecretary for weapons programs along with two recently created posts, a "security czar" and a department-wide director of counterintelligence. Rudman, on the other hand, called for a semiautonomous agency that would report to the energy secretary.
"I hate this `agency' word, I abhor it," Richardson replied, adding that "it connotes something that is a separate entity within my own entity."
Members of the House Commerce Committee were critical of both approaches in an afternoon session with Rudman and Richardson, foreshadowing deep divisions in the House. Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) said that Rudman's proposal "would be a step backwards," while he warned Richardson that he was "not being well-served by your advisers." Bliley noted in particular that last week the Energy Department blocked a briefing of Commerce Committee staff members on security inspections at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee's ranking minority member, said he "strongly" opposed the Rudman plan. "None of us," Dingell said, "wants to use these serious security problems as an excuse to put the inmates in charge of the asylum."
The idea of a semiautonomous nuclear agency also was questioned by Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio), who asked how the department would enforce uniform standards for safety and health. And several members asked Richardson why, after the allegations of Chinese spying emerged last year, he did not immediately cancel the University of California's contract to manage the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. "I think they are the root of the problem," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.).
CAPTION: At joint hearing are Randy Deitering, left, and former senator Rudman, both of Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).