Congress had not produced a compromise National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020 as of early Friday afternoon, prolonging a lack of authorization for key nuclear programs.
It was a week of whiplash predictions from top defense authorizers Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who in the aggregate appeared less certain of a deal at deadline for RadWaste Monitor than when they returned from Thanksgiving recess.
Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, insisted all week that compromise was imminent. On Thursday, he even told reporters on Capitol Hill there could be a deal before Friday. Yet also on Thursday, Inhofe warned that House Democrats and the White House were not as close to an accord as he thought earlier in the week.
Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Thursday morning that NDAA conferees from both chambers of Congress “have a couple of areas that are not resolved as much as I thought they were yesterday.” Inhofe would not discuss specifics of the hangup. He did say that he spoke on the phone with President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening when the president returned from the NATO Summit London, and had an in-person meeting with Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday morning.
Fiscal 2020 began on Oct. 1 without a new congressionally approved NDAA in place, after the House and Senate passed their respective versions. Inhofe said that “everyone is aware” of the impending deadline to complete negotiations and pass the bill by Dec. 13, which was at deadline the Senate’s last scheduled legislative day before the Christmas holiday.
This comes as Congress is also striving to pass full-year appropriations bills. It has yet to send any such legislation to the president, instead passing stopgap spending measures. The second and latest continuing resolution expires on Dec. 20. Until then, the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other federal agencies are largely funded at fiscal 2019 levels.
Smith told reporters Thursday that there have been multiple “hiccups” on the road to an NDAA compromise, but that he also believed a resolution was possible as soon as Friday.
The NDAA sets policy and spending limits for defense programs, including nuclear-weapon stewardship and defense nuclear cleanup managed by the Energy Department. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2020 bill eliminated the administration’s request for a $26 million authorization for defense nuclear waste disposal – funds that would be used to resume licensing of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository in Nevada.
Appropriators in both chambers also rejected the DOE and NRC requests, for about $150 million in total, to restart licensing in fiscal 2020. The Energy Department filed its application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008, but the Obama administration defunded the proceeding nearly a decade ago. Congress previously zeroed out similar licensing appropriations for fiscal 2018 and 2019.
Smith declined to delve into the details of his negotiating priorities on Thursday.
“I am not going to answer any more questions about this, until we finalize the bill,” Smith told reporters, including NS&D Monitor affiliate publication Defense Daily. “And then I’ll answer questions about what is actually in it, and why.”
Vivienne Machi, staff reporter for Radwaste Monitor affiliate publication Defense Daily, contributed to this story from Washington.