The top four lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees met Thursday for a second day behind closed doors to hash out a compromise bill on fiscal 2012 defense authorization, a process expected to resolve months of disagreement over nuclear policy provisions.
Aiming to complete negotiations by early next week, the panel chairmen and ranking members had much more on their plate to discuss after each chamber took a stab at the Obama administration's $690 billion defense budget request. Other big issues in contention include Defense Department plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the handling of combat detainees, and possible sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran for its alleged role in helping finance Tehran's nuclear efforts.
Some Pentagon and congressional officials, though, are watching the conference committee closely for an outcome on U.S. nuclear policy issues. This follows a House initiative in the spring to include so-called "New START Implementation" measures in its version of the defense bill, dubbed H.R. 1540.
Under the defense authorization legislation passed by the House, the administration could be restricted in its ability to reduce deployed or nondeployed nuclear weapons below levels set by the U.S.-Russian nuclear accord, unless required by another treaty or authorized by Congress.
The arms control agreement, which entered into force in February, caps each side's fielded strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a ceiling of 2,200 dictated by an earlier treaty. The agreement also limits deployed strategic nuclear delivery systems at 700, with an additional 100 platforms permitted in reserve.
The Obama administration has said the Defense Department is studying the prospects for additional reductions below New START caps, but has not yet determined whether that would require any such changes in strategy.
Under certain conditions, the House measure could also prohibit the executive branch from eliminating weapons from the "hedge force" until the mid-2020s, when two new plutonium and uranium facilities to support the nuclear stockpile are scheduled to be up and running. The hedge force consists of warheads that could be put on alert in a crisis, in case a resurgent threat develops or a major technical problem is discovered in fielded weapons. Congressional supporters of the provision argue that fresh production of key warhead materials should be available before any backup weapons in the hedge force are dismantled.
This House provision and other similar measures in the chamber's 2012 policy bill are likely to become watered down in conference with the Senate, according to Capitol Hill sources and observers. The Senate version, approved on Dec. 1, reflected more support for White House nuclear policies among its Armed Services Committee members, who drafted the legislation.
Earlier this year, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., teamed up to advocate New START Implementation measures in each chamber.
Turner chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. Although Kyl does not sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Arizona senator played a central role last year in persuading the White House to agree to $85 billion in nuclear modernization spending over the next 10 years.
With Kyl's and Turner's support, the Pentagon is also expected to spend hundreds of billions of additional dollars on nuclear delivery systems such as submarines, missiles, and bomber aircraft in coming decades.
Together the two lawmakers in May demanded that the White House follow through on maintaining a robust modernization plan for atomic weapons and upgrading the aging nuclear complex -- promises the Obama team made in lobbying late last year for ratification of the New START pact.
When it came time to include binding language in the fiscal 2012 bills, though, Turner had an easier go of it than Kyl, whose chamber is led by a Democratic majority. The House-passed bill provisions that limit future deployed or hedge-force arms reductions are regarded by the administration as so "onerous" that the White House threatened to veto any final legislation in which they appear.
In its own defense authorization bill, called S.1867, the Senate echoed questions about Obama's nuclear policies but imposed fewer burdens on the administration. The Senate version included no restrictions on negotiated or unilateral arms reductions, limiting its demands instead to a small handful of Pentagon reports on force levels and strategy.
"I strongly suspect that the language that Turner got on the House side will be modified substantially in the conference," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, noting that the details of House-Senate negotiations remain a matter of speculation until the conference is done.
A spokesman for Turner declined comment, pending the conference outcome.
The more modest measures passed by the Senate reflected an effort by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., chairman of that chamber's Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, to take some of the partisan bite out of the New START Implementation initiative while acknowledging some Republican concerns.
"Ben Nelson worked with Kyl, and perhaps others, to ensure there wasn't a floor debate on this particular issue in the defense authorization bill," Isaacs said.
Now that the bill text is open to possible compromise, Turner's role is reduced. The Ohio congressman this week was named to the House-Senate conference committee. However, he has not been included in the closed-door negotiating sessions limited to the so-called "Big Four": Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Other New START Implementation provisions in the House bill that might -- or might not -- make it through the conference committee into final legislation include one on the Pentagon's nuclear targeting approach. The targeting plan could be subject to some alterations as a result of an "NPR Implementation Study," due for completion before next month and based on a major Nuclear Posture Review that the Pentagon carried out last year.
The House bill would prevent the president from adopting a "countervalue" nuclear strategy, which focuses on targeting population centers rather than military installations. Republicans have charged that such a shift would introduce an "immoral" rise in civilian casualties during a nuclear war.
The same passage in the legislation would also mandate that the president certify that any new strategy uses all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, bomber aircraft, and submarine-based ballistic missiles.
When the Senate version of the bill went to a floor debate last week, the body adopted by unanimous consent a 40-amendment package that included a couple of measures pertaining to the nuclear triad.
One was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would require an administration report if it proposes a change to the nuclear force structure. Another, offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would seek a report on the nation's ability to maintain a long-term capacity to build solid-rocket motors for ICBMs.
Concerns have grown over the past few months -- particularly among some Republican lawmakers -- that the nuclear modernization budget plus-ups promised last year could quickly fall victim to the budget ax. In the wake of the congressional "super committee" failure last month to establish a bipartisan compromise on reducing the annual deficit, lawmakers appear increasingly sensitive to public criticism on federal spending.
To help cut the budget and reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. national security, some defense experts have recommended eliminating one or more legs of the triad -- an option that more hawkish lawmakers typically reject.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in a Nov. 14 letter to lawmakers that if a budget sequester occurs that forces deep cuts to the defense budget, one outcome could be the elimination of all 450 ICBMs in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Several lawmakers have strongly protested this idea, including both of Montana's Democratic senators, who wrote to the defense leader on Wednesday.
The nation's top operational commander for nuclear weapons, Gen. Robert Kehler, recently said the United States still requires a triad. He advocated, though, that the Pentagon consider the potential merits of other force configurations in the longer term, particularly given mounting budget pressures.
Should some of the stricter House measures survive in the conference bill, the stage could be set for a presidential veto.
The White House budget office in May said that Obama's staff might recommend that he send back to Congress any legislation that includes the House version's "onerous conditions on the administration's ability to implement the treaty, as well as to retire, dismantle or eliminate nondeployed nuclear weapons."
If embraced by the conference committee, the House nuclear policy provisions might also impede the U.S. capacity "to support the long-term safety, security and reliability of our nuclear deterrent," according to the budget office statement.