A new defense conference bill includes limits on nuclear arms control efforts, but the restrictions are not as prohibitive as some House Republicans wanted.
As originally approved by the House in June, the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2014 would have placed several conditions on the Obama administration's ability to comply with the 2011 New START pact with Russia. The House legislation also would have restricted the administration's ability to pursue additional arms reductions efforts not already covered by existing agreements.
For example, the lower chamber's original bill would have prevented the administration from reducing the number of nuclear-capable U.S. aircraft in Europe unless NATO allies approved the move and the Russian military carried out similar reductions to its forces.
In a June veto threat, the White House said such a provision "would limit the President's authority to determine appropriate force structure to meet nuclear deterrence requirements and to set nuclear employment policy -- authority exercised by every president in the nuclear age."
Following negotiations with Senate Democrats, the compromise bill does require the administration to give Congress advanced notice of NATO's position on such reductions and related Russian actions. But it does not make NATO approval or complementary moves by the former Soviet Union prerequisites to such actions.
The House-approved bill also would have prevented the administration from spending any money to make arms reductions required by the New START accord until the defense secretary provides a detailed plan for treaty compliance required by the fiscal 2012 defense authorization law. The compromise legislation also puts limits on the administration's ability to take actions in compliance with New START until it releases the plan, but the restrictions are not as far-reaching.
Rather than prevent the administration from spending money on any efforts to comply with New START until it releases the plan, the House-Senate conference measure would only restrict efforts to convert nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, and to conduct an environmental assessment related to the prospect of reducing the number of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
The compromise bill would outright prohibit converting B-52s into non-nuclear aircraft until the administration releases the plan. And, until then, it would also cut spending on the environmental assessment of missile silo reduction by 50 percent.
Kingston Reif, director for nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, characterized the compromise legislation as an improvement over the original House bill. "I don’t see anything regarding nuclear weapons that would prompt a veto threat by the administration," he told Global Security Newswire.
"It is disappointing that the bill bars fiscal 2014 funds from being used to actually carry out -- as opposed to prepare for -- reductions to meet New START limits," Reif added. However, the impact of the restrictions is likely to be limited he said, noting that “the administration has no plans to meet the [treaty] limits early in any event."
The original House bill would have required the administration to keep every existing Minuteman 3 ICBM silo active. But the compromise legislation only expresses "a sense of the Congress" that all the silos "should" be kept in a "warm status" and that any non-deployed missiles be spread evenly across the three existing ICBM bases.
Such a move would appear to share the impact of any reductions evenly among the three congressional districts that host the facilities. The language is essentially a watered-down version of legislation sponsored by Representatives Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who represent those districts.
The original House bill also would have limited funding for any arms-reduction efforts that go beyond what is covered in existing agreements, unless certain conditions were met. The conditions -- depending on various scenarios described in the House legislation -- could have included Senate approval, comparable arms reductions by Russia, or a pledge that U.S. intelligence agencies have certain information regarding China's nuclear weapons, including their "nature, number, location and targetability."
The compromise bill worked out with Senate Democrats does not include such restrictions. It only expresses "the sense of Congress" that further arms reductions "should" be "pursued through a mutually negotiated agreement" with Russia "through the treaty making powers of the president."
Any such reductions should also "take into account the full range of nuclear weapon capabilities that threaten the United States and its allies," the House-Senate legislation states.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.