By James W. Brosnan - Albuquerque Tribune
Thursday, June 21, 2007
WASHINGTON — It was obvious that reversing the deep cuts in funding for New Mexico's nuclear weapons laboratories didn't stand a chance in the House when the author of those reductions attacked Los Alamos for an incident that happened at Sandia National Laboratories.
The funding battle now moves to the Senate, where Albuquerque Republican Pete Domenici is hoping for more support for the labs than was shown on June 20 in the House - which squashed an amendment by Rep. Tom Udall, a Santa Fe Democrat, to restore $192 million of the more than $600 million in cuts for the labs.
Udall's move failed by a 312-121 vote, an ominous sign for the New Mexico congressional delegation.
"The road ahead remains difficult," Domenici said after the House vote.
According to some estimates, the cuts could force the loss as many as 2,000 jobs at Los Alamos and more than 900 at Sandia.
In rejecting Udall's amendment, the leaders of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee - Chairman Peter Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat, and ranking Republican David Hobson of Ohio - made clear they were not only seeking to curtail nuclear weapons production but to punish Los Alamos for repeated security and safety breaches.
Visclosky said Congress should be most worried about the case of Shawn Carpenter.
"Mr. Carpenter worked at Los Alamos. Mr. Carpenter was concerned about security at Los Alamos," said Visclosky. "He went to the FBI and was terminated."
In fact, Carpenter worked at Sandia, not Los Alamos. And he was not concerned about security at Los Alamos but about the hacking by the Chinese into various government computers. He did go to the FBI and was fired by Sandia managers who said his activities were unauthorized.
An Albuquerque jury recently awarded Carpenter more than $4 million in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.
Visclosky's press spokesman, Justin Kitsch, told The Tribune that Visclosky had "a slip of the tongue."
Hobson was even harsher toward Los Alamos and its 9,000 employees.
"I would argue our national security might actually be improved by cutting 1,800 jobs from a facility that can't seem to manage sensitive information. We'd have a lot less people to watch," said Hobson.
Udall acknowledged there have been "unacceptable" managerial problems at Los Alamos, but he blamed those on the National Nuclear Security Administration and defended lab workers.
"The scientists at LANL are the best in the world, and they work with a commitment to both national security and the pursuit of scientific knowledge," Udall said.
Udall did not attempt to restore funding for the two major weapons programs eliminated by the committee - the reliable replacement warhead and new facilities at Los Alamos to support continued production of the plutonium pits that trigger nuclear bombs.
Instead, he sought to restore funding for a Los Alamos high-speed supercomputer system, plus stockpile stewardship programs - which test components to make sure the bombs are safe and reliable without underground testing of the weapons themselves.
Some of the science funds also could have been used at Sandia.
Visclosky said he feared some of the $192 million would filter back into new weapons production. Hobson said taxpayers' dollars would be better spent on conventional weapons and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons around the world than on the nuclear weapons complex in the United States.
He said Udall's amendment was not about national security but about jobs at a lab that "has held a pre-eminent place at the federal trough for years."
"All told, Los Alamos receives close to $2 billion a year. I cannot tell you what we get in return for that investment," said Hobson.
Domenici denied that the delegation was simply trying to protect New Mexico jobs.
"The House plan represents a seismic shift in American nuclear weapons policy with national and international implications," he said.
While funding for the labs looks dire, President Bush is threatening to veto the bill, mostly because it spends nearly more than $1 billion more than he requested overall, but also because of the nuclear weapons budget.
If Bush does veto the bill, it would be unlikely that Democrats could muster the two-thirds vote for an override. That would force Democrats to negotiate a second bill with the White House and the Republicans or wrap the spending into a continuing resolution at current spending levels.
The House agreed on June 20 to postpone final action on the bill until July.