The top Democrat on a powerful House panel said he does not believe the congressional super committee charged with finding ways to trim the nation's deficit by $1.2 trillion should consider reducing funds aimed at maintaining and refurbishing the country's nuclear-weapons complex (see GSN, Oct. 25).
"I'm not going to take anything off the table," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on Thursday during an event at the American Enterprise Institute. However, "I do think that we've made rather significant reductions in our nuclear force, and I would be reluctant to go further."
"A lot of folks don't understand just how complicated it is to maintain that nuclear arsenal.... There's a lot of money that goes into that," the eight-term lawmaker added. "So I would not look at that as a place where we can find an enormous amount of savings, no."
In wooing Republican lawmakers to support the New START nuclear arms control deal with Russia, the Obama administration last year pledged $85 billion over the next decade for modernizing the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.
As it looks to cut federal spending amid the country's continued economic troubles, though, some on Capitol Hill have begun to eye National Nuclear Security Administration weapons activities as one source of potential savings. The semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department maintains the country's atomic stockpile and conducts nonproliferation operations around the world.
This summer, the full House approved a spending plan that would pare down NNSA weapons work by nearly $500 million in the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 (see GSN, July 15).
The Senate Appropriations Committee in September cut $440 million in proposed funding for fiscal 2012 from the nuclear agency's stockpile operations (see GSN, Sept. 8). It is unclear when the full chamber will take up the spending measure.
The federal government is currently funded through a continuing resolution that expires on Nov. 18.
White House Management and Budget head Jacob Lew responded to the Senate panel's move last week with a letter urging Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and other lawmakers to support "robust funding" for the nation's nuclear arsenal and its accompanying infrastructure.
"The administration will oppose any cuts that compromise our ability to modernize our nuclear-weapons complex," OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly told Global Security Newswire on Thursday by e-mail. "We look forward to working with Congress to identify an appropriate funding level."
In August, the White House and Congress struck a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling into 2013, preventing the government from defaulting on its obligations. The agreement calls for $350 billion in defense spending cuts over 10 years as part of a broader savings package.
Although the measure did not lay out specific reductions, it set a ceiling for fiscal 2012 on "security" spending, which included the National Nuclear Security Administration, of slightly more than $680 billion. The agreement also established the bipartisan panel and assigned it to develop a strategy to slice the deficit by at least another $1.2 trillion.
Should the panel of House and Senate lawmakers fail to reach an agreement--or Congress not approve its recommendations--by Nov. 23 the debt package would automatically trigger $1.2 trillion in cuts, including $600 billion from Pentagon coffers.
As the panel's deadline inches closer, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are jostling over whether nuclear-weapons funding should be looked at for savings.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and 64 other Democrats earlier this month called on the joint panel to consider eliminating $200 billion over the next decade from the U.S. nuclear-weapons budget by ending the nuclear mission for B-52 and B-2 bombers, scaling back the size of the nation's ballistic missile submarine fleet, and canceling major infrastructure projects (see GSN, Oct. 12)
Meanwhile, House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and eight other representatives sent a letter to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee decrying their votes to cut funding for the complex.
Turner commended Smith for his caution about further nuclear reductions.
"We are in an uncertain and changing threat environment. Other nations, including China and Russia, are undertaking robust nuclear weapons modernization programs," he said on Thursday in an exclusive statement to GSN. "This is not the time to delay the modernization of our aging stockpile, infrastructure and delivery vehicles or undertake significant changes to our nuclear policies and posture.
"It is clear that the New START treaty and modernization are a package deal--the one can't be safely implemented without the other," Turner added.
The White House has embarked on a "strategic review" to look at potential avenues to further reduce the nation's strategic deterrent (see GSN, Sept. 22).
Smith said that President Obama "negotiated a pretty aggressive deal" on New START. The pact, which entered into force on Feb. 5, requires the two countries to each reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a cap of 2,200 mandated by a previous treaty.
"Now once we get that done, we can look at it again and figure out what our needs are, sure," Smith said. "But right now I think that START treaty reflects pretty closely what our needs are."
The deadline for meeting the updated mandate in New START is 2018.
Smith said he was familiar with Markey's cost-cutting plan and does not agree with its proposed cap on nuclear-capable submarines.
"I mean, that is the strongest part of the triad that we have," he said, referring to the nation's long-standing use of nuclear-armed ICBMs, submarines, and bombers. "I think having that part of the triad is important."
Markey disagreed with Smith's argument.
"Even if it's under the sea, it must be on the table for the super committee. Reducing the nuclear-submarine fleet from 12 to eight and delaying procurement of new subs will save $27 billion over the next decade," the Massachusetts lawmaker said on Friday in a statement to GSN. "Those same eight submarines can carry the same firepower as 12, just by adding some more tubes.... We can maintain an effective nuclear deterrent and save money at the same time."