Morning Briefing - June 14, 2018
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June 14, 2018

Amendment to Maintain Congressional Scrutiny of New Nuke Warhead Programs Narrowly Survives Kill Vote

By Dan Leone

After a nail-biter of an amendment vote Wednesday, the Department of Energy may still have to seek congressional approval to start work on new nuclear warheads, if the Senate’s version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act becomes law.

However, the measure still would authorize $65 million for the department to start work in fiscal 2019 on the low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead the Donald Trump administration called for in the Nuclear Posture Review it published in February.

Debate on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) began Wednesday, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) was among the first to the floor. The committee’s ranking Democrat said the bill would, unless amended, allow DOE to begin creating new warheads, or modifying existing ones, simply by requesting funding for that purpose.

The Senate committee’s unamended 2019 NDAA would allow DOE to begin work on “any type of nuclear weapon” for which the agency specifically requests funding, “at which point they [DOE] can begin reprogramming funds that have already been appropriated to start moving forward with development,” Reed said on the Senate floor.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), acting chairman of the Armed Services Committee, quickly moved to kill Reed’s amendment, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). However, three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — crossed the aisle to join with all the Senate’s voting Democrats for a 51-47 vote against tabling the measure. 

Despite its dramatic brush with death, Reed’s amendment is not part of the Senate committee’s 2019 NDAA yet. With the kill vote defeated, senators may resume debate on the amendment and vote to add it to the bill later. Usually, amendments need only a simply majority to pass in the Senate.

The Senate will be debating the NDAA for the rest of this week and possibly into next, Inhofe told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The Trump administration says simply possessing a low-yield warhead will deter Russia from using one of its own to win a conflict Moscow starts, but cannot finish, with conventional weapons. Some congressional Democrats have argued the current U.S. nuclear arsenal already serves that purpose.