House Bill Would Tap Into Nuclear Weapons Fund to Aid Veterans

U.S. military veteran and amputee Lloyd Epps walks after doctors serviced his prosthetic leg at a Veterans Administration facility in New York in January. A bill that the House approved on Thursday would cut some controversial nuclear weapons spending in a bid to help veterans.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
May 23, 2014, 10:16 a.m.

The ver­sion of the fisc­al 2015 de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that the House ap­proved Thursday would cut some con­tro­ver­sial nuc­le­ar weapons spend­ing in a bid to help vet­er­ans.

The le­gis­la­tion — which au­thor­izes but does not ap­pro­pri­ate funds for mil­it­ary-re­lated items — in­cludes two re­lated amend­ments offered by Rep­res­ent­at­ive Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). To­geth­er they would cut $7.5 mil­lion out of the $643 mil­lion that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted for con­tro­ver­sial ef­forts to ex­tend the life of B-61 grav­ity bombs, many of which are sta­tioned in Europe.

The two pro­vi­sions also would take $7.5 mil­lion out of pro­jects to re­fur­bish the Navy’s W-76 nuc­le­ar war­head — more than half of the fund­ing boost that the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee had sought to au­thor­ize for the pro­gram. The bill would al­low up to $266.3 mil­lion in spend­ing on W-76 re­fur­bish­ment, still $7.1 mil­lion more than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted.

The money — along with $15 mil­lion that would be cut from the Navy’s ship­build­ing budget — would fund two ini­ti­at­ives:

One would cre­ate “a train­ing pro­gram to in­crease and im­prove fin­an­cial lit­er­acy and train­ing for in­com­ing and out-go­ing mil­it­ary per­son­nel,” ac­cord­ing to the le­gis­la­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a state­ment Kildee provided to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, this would help ad­dress a prob­lem of “un­scru­pu­lous lenders” tar­get­ing ser­vice mem­bers.

The oth­er would re­quire the Pentagon to com­mis­sion a third-party study meant to “identi­fy de­fi­cien­cies in the treat­ment of wounded war­ri­ors and of­fer re­com­mend­a­tions to the sec­ret­ary of De­fense and Con­gress to im­prove such treat­ment,” the meas­ure states.

The House ap­prov­al of Kildee’s amend­ments comes amid fur­or on Cap­it­ol Hill over rev­el­a­tions about former ser­vice mem­bers who died while on a Vet­er­ans Af­fairs wait­ing list for med­ic­al ap­point­ments in Phoenix.

Ac­cord­ing to Kildee’s staff, “at a time when our wounded ser­vice mem­bers are not get­ting the ad­equate care they de­serve, it is a mis­placed pri­or­ity to spend more money on such nuc­le­ar re­fur­bish­ment pro­grams for out­dated weapons sys­tems, es­pe­cially when the Pentagon has not even asked for it.”

The House also ap­proved, by a 224-199 vote, an amend­ment offered by Rep­res­ent­at­ive Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) that would re­quire the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice to up­date its re­port on the pro­jec­ted costs of U.S. nuc­le­ar forces on an an­nu­al basis. The move fol­lows a re­port earli­er this year by the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies ar­guing that the cur­rent plan for mod­ern­iz­ing the ar­sen­al is too costly to im­ple­ment.

The Re­pub­lic­an-led House Rules Com­mit­tee, however, blocked floor de­bate on an amend­ment offered by Rep­res­ent­at­ives Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and John Gara­mendi (D-Cal­if.) call­ing for more in-depth ana­lys­is on the need to main­tain all three com­pon­ents of the so-called nuc­le­ar tri­ad.

The pro­vi­sion would have re­quired the non­par­tis­an Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice to study the jus­ti­fic­a­tion and ra­tionale for main­tain­ing the three com­pon­ents, which in­clude bombs that can be dropped by air­craft, along with bal­list­ic mis­siles both at sea and on land. The meas­ure would also have in­struc­ted the GAO study and to identi­fy any ex­cess costs that could be trimmed.

The House ap­proved by voice vote an amend­ment offered by Rep­res­ent­at­ive Steve Daines (R-Mont.) — whose home state hosts ground-based mis­sile silos — that would make it “the policy of the United States to op­er­ate, sus­tain and mod­ern­ize or re­place the tri­ad” in its en­tirety.

The House bill also con­tains lan­guage, to which the White House ob­jects, that would re­quire that every in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile silo cur­rently con­tain­ing a de­ployed mis­sile be kept op­er­a­tion­al.

At press time, all of the po­ten­tial dis­crep­an­cies with the House bill and the Sen­ate ver­sion of the an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill were not yet clear. The Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee com­pleted draft­ing its ver­sion of the bill on Thursday, but had not yet re­leased the full text of the le­gis­la­tion.

One ap­par­ent dif­fer­ence is that the Sen­ate bill would au­thor­ize $365 mil­lion for the Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion pro­gram — the en­tire amount that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted. The CTR pro­gram — which se­cures and dis­mantles po­ten­tial weapons of mass de­struc­tion throughout the world that are con­sidered to be a threat to the United States — would be cut by $10.5 mil­lion un­der the House bill.

Un­like the House bill, the Sen­ate le­gis­la­tion would also provide $346 mil­lion — $145 mil­lion more than the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted — to con­tin­ue con­struc­tion of a con­tro­ver­sial fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina that would con­vert ex­cess bomb-grade plutoni­um in­to nuc­le­ar fuel. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing to sus­pend con­struc­tion of the fa­cil­ity while it ex­plores oth­er, pos­sibly cheap­er, meth­ods of dis­pos­ing of the plutoni­um.

Some law­makers are ques­tion­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cost es­tim­ates, however, and have sug­ges­ted it should be able to make a de­cision in less than the 18 months it has pro­jec­ted. Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors at a budget hear­ing earli­er this month gave Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials two weeks to come up with new ways to make the ori­gin­al mixed-ox­ide fuel con­ver­sion plan cost less.

Ac­cord­ing to NNSA spokes­man Der­rick Robin­son, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials did have a fol­low-up meet­ing with Sen­at­ors Di­anne Fein­stein (D-Cal­if.) and Lamar Al­ex­an­der (R-Tenn.) last week. It was “a sub­stant­ive con­ver­sa­tion that dis­cussed a range of op­tions and chal­lenges, which in­cluded a dis­cus­sion of MOX costs and op­tions,” he said.

Robin­son did not provide any re­vised cost pro­jec­tions.

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle was mod­i­fied after pub­lic­a­tion to cor­rect the state Kildee rep­res­ents.
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