Jennifer Talhelm/Associated Press
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
WASHINGTON — A week after the U.S. House agreed to deep budget cuts for Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab got some good news. The Senate version of the same spending bill cut some nuclear weapons funding, but essentially left the lab's budget alone.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said supporters of the northern New Mexico lab can breathe easier, but the bill still has to be approved by the full committee Thursday. Then the full Senate will take it up.
The next serious fight is expected when the House and Senate meet in a conference committee later this year to hammer out a final bill.
"If you add it all up, we couldn't have come out better, but let's be realistic," said Domenici, the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for energy and water programs.
The House cut $300 million of Los Alamos' current $2.2 billion budget as well as about $100 million from Albuquerque's Sandia National Laboratories.
House lawmakers made it clear they were exasperated with years of security lapses, cost overruns and safety violations, especially at Los Alamos. They questioned whether Los Alamos lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, was too irresponsible to get so much federal funding.
The most recent security concerns were reported in the last few weeks. The Energy Department has acknowledged e-mails containing highly classified information were sent by lab officials over an open network.
Domenici praised senators for not trying to "get back at the laboratories," and not "playing games" with the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.
The Senate version preserves money for the labs' core responsibilities, including monitoring the nuclear weapons stockpile, Domenici said. The bill also increases the budget for cleanup of lab property by $83 million to $222 million, which would allow Los Alamos to meet milestones set in an agreement with the state of New Mexico.
It provides $45 million to consolidate 140 classified vaults into fewer than 10, a lab-initiated project Domenici said would help it better control security. The measure would provide an additiional $12 million to complete a program to reduce the potential for staffers to take classified material from the lab.
The House bill took aim at a program to develop new nuclear warheads, which Los Alamos would have participated in with other labs.
The Senate version also halts funding for all but a feasibility study of the warhead program.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chairs the subcommittee, said the bill reflects the need to pause and decide what the future of the nation's weapons program should be before continuing to fund a new warhead.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called the bill a "good starting point" as it moves to the full committee and then the Senate, where some changes are expected.
"Most important is the fact that it maintains our existing stockpile stewardship program, which supports some of the most important work done at our two labs," Bingaman said.