Senate Republicans may attempt to cut off the salaries of top officials in the Department of Energy if the department undermines the establishment of a separate agency to run nuclear weapons programs, a Senate aide warned yesterday.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is expected to face sharp questioning today from senators who contend that the Clinton administration is violating the spirit and possibly the letter of a law passed last month that set up the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Republican legislators, who drafted the measure as a response to allegations that China had stolen nuclear secrets from U.S. weapons laboratories, say they intended to create a "separately organized agency" whose administrator would report to the secretary of energy but would have a high degree of autonomy.

Under the law, the NNSA was to have its own contracting, personnel, health and safety, legal and public affairs, and counterintelligence offices. The goal of the reorganization, backers argued, was to clarify lines of responsibility, streamline bureaucracy and tighten security.

On Oct. 5, President Clinton signed the fiscal 2000 Defense Authorization Act, which set up the agency. But at the same time, he directed Richardson to assume all the duties of the NNSA administrator, who has the title of undersecretary of energy for nuclear security. Richardson also was authorized to assign his top subordinates, such as the directors of security and counterintelligence at the DOE, to serve concurrently in parallel posts at the NNSA.

Republicans were outraged by the White House action and said it would ensure that the new agency existed only in name. Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argued in a letter to Clinton that the directive would "undermine" the intent of Congress and protect "the status quo."

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that approves funding for the DOE, initially responded to Clinton's "frontal attack" by threatening to eliminate all funds for business travel by Richardson in fiscal 2000. Since the energy secretary would be serving in two jobs, Domenici said, he obviously "would not have time to travel."

Upon reflection, however, Domenici and other Republicans decided that it is acceptable for Richardson to serve in both jobs while the NNSA is being organized. If Clinton fails to nominate a new administrator by March 2000, when the agency is scheduled to go into operation, even Senate Democrats will consider the president to be attempting an "end run" around Congress, according to an analysis written by a Democratic staff attorney.

Meanwhile, Domenici is weighing whether to introduce legislation to cut the salaries of any Energy Department officials under Richardson who are assigned concurrent jobs at the NNSA, according to an aide.

Richardson is scheduled to appear today before a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Governmental Affairs Committee. Aides said he plans to tell the senators that he could support the establishment of a nuclear agency within his department but that he objects to the language establishing the NNSA, because it would undercut his authority, duplicate many functions and worsen bureaucracy instead of streamlining it.

Richardson has proposed amending the law to reassert his authority to "supervise, manage and direct" the NNSA and allow him to delegate this authority to officials other than the administrator. Although Richardson failed in an attempt to attach this language to the fiscal 2000 intelligence authorization bill, he is expected to offer it again at today's hearing. He has said he will step aside as undersecretary of energy for nuclear security as soon as "deficiencies" in the law are corrected.

CAPTION: SPENCE

CAPTION: DOMENICI

CAPTION: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who objects to creating a separate agency to run nuclear weapons programs, plans to testify before the Senate today.