Jun 12, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
WASHINGTON — Just about every year the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee adds money for water projects and cuts the president's budget for funding nuclear weapons and facilities and thus the budgets for New Mexico's two weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia.
But this year, three differences make looming battles more critical.
First, the cuts are more severe. A cut of about $500 million was proposed for Los Alamos and $100 million for Sandia. By comparison, Congress cut weapons spending by a total of only $108 million in its last budget cycle.
Second, Rep. Tom Udall, the Santa Fe Democrat who represents Los Alamos, is now a member of the Appropriations Committee. He is taking political heat for the cuts proposed by the committee's Democratic chairman.
And third, Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, is no longer the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that will write its own spending plan for the labs and which could replace some or all of the lost funding. Now, he is its ranking minority member.
The new chairman is North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, and Domenici is counting on the departments of Energy and Defense to tell Dorgan that the House plan would weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
"We have got to do better than the House did," Domenici said in an interview Friday with KRSN-AM (1490) in Los Alamos.
"This is about as serious a problem as we've seen, and it has the potential for affecting all New Mexico," he said.
The $31.6 billion House version of the energy and water spending bill could hit the House floor Wednesday or Thursday, but members of the New Mexico delegation do not expect the lab numbers to change.
Instead, Udall hopes to add a provision making clear that both Sandia and Los Alamos will be able to compete for about $600 million in funding for energy research under the bill.
"Los Alamos needs to diversify," Udall said. "I'm going to try to get language that makes Los Alamos and Sandia part of the new energy future."
In the long run, the end of the Cold War means there will be fewer nuclear weapons and a smaller government infrastructure, he said.
That was the point made by Rep. Peter Visclosky, the Indiana Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, as he slashed or eliminated funding in his bill for a new weapon, the reliable replacement warhead, as well as new facilities at Los Alamos to manufacture the plutonium "pits" that trigger nuclear bombs.
"The bill cuts funding for poorly thought-out plans for nuclear weapons, recognizing that because of the enormous cost and the importance to our national security they require smart strategies, not blank checks," Visclosky said.
Udall, who is not a member of Visclosky's subcommittee, voted "no" when the measure was approved on a voice vote in the full committee. He said the bill unfairly singled out the New Mexico labs, but he placed the blame on the Bush administration for not presenting Congress with a clear plan detailing the size of the future nuclear weapons stockpile and the infrastructure to support that plan.
"There's some real resentment (in the committee) in terms of DOE and the administration for not presenting a clear post-Cold War and post-9/11 plan," Udall said.
The New Mexico Republican Party blamed the committee rookie.
GOP Executive Director Adam Feldman said Udall "bowed to the liberal house leadership - and his district is now at risk."
But Visclosky's cuts met with no objection from the ranking Republican in his subcommittee, David Hobson of Ohio, who clashed in the past with Domenici over nuclear weapons funding.
Hobson called the measure "a good bill" and agreed that the stockpile plan from the administration is "essential before we invest significant resources in modernizing the DOE nuclear weapons complex."
On the same day that Feldman criticized Udall, the two Republican members of the New Mexico delegation, Heather Wilson of Albuquerque and Steve Pearce of Hobbs, sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee warning that the cuts, if enacted, "will do irreparable damage to our nation's security and devastate the nuclear weapons program."
They said cuts to the Stockpile Stewardship programs at Los Alamos would reduce the labs' ability to simulate nuclear explosions and thus make it more difficult to certify that the weapons are safe and reliable without nuclear testing.
Visclosky "could not disagree more" with Wilson and Pearce, said the chairman's spokesman, Justin Kitsch. He said the vast majority of cuts affect only new weapons programs.
Wilson and Pearce said the cuts also could mean the loss of about 400 jobs at Sandia and more than 1,000 at Los Alamos.
Udall declined to sign the Wilson-Pearce letter. Appropriators don't write letters to themselves, he noted. But he also said it was premature to project the impact of the budget cuts.
"We should not be getting carried away with doomsday predictions," Udall said.