ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
As a newly appointed member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., found himself virtually alone last Wednesday objecting to a funding bill that contained substantial cuts for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Republicans and Democrats on the Committee approved the measure by a unanimous voice vote, based on higher priorities for energy concerns.
Immediately after the vote, Udall issued a statement defending the Energy and Water Development Appropriation Bill, but also declaring his intention to defend the laboratory budget.
"My focus during the entire appropriation process is both to ensure the safety and security of the lab and the surrounding community and to make certain that the outstanding scientists at New Mexico's national labs have a fair opportunity to compete for the increased funding levels proposed for the Department of Energy's Office of Science."
But Republicans in the New Mexico Congressional delegation felt no such ambiguity.
Reps. Heather Wilson and Steven Pierce, representing Districts 1 and 2 in the state, responded with a letter to the committee chair and ranking member that calculated the cuts to the nuclear weapons programs at $630 million.
"The bill cuts nearly $500 million from Los Alamos and $100 million from Sandia. This translates into job losses of over 1,000 people to the State of New Mexico," Wilson and Pierce wrote.
Udall is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, but is not a member of the subcommittee whose recommendation the appropriations committee adopted.
Los Alamos County GOP Chair Ron Dolan, a LANL employee who ran unsuccessfully against Udall last year, criticized Udall for not doing enough.
"How this outcome could not have been obvious to everyone who voted for Udall last year escapes me," he said. "Mr. Udall was nowhere to be found when the Los Alamos contract was recently renegotiated and nowhere to be heard when the Los Alamos-designed Reliable Replacement Warhead program was punitively taken away and given to Livermore National Laboratory."
New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's office was asked for a comment on the LANL budget.
"There is a long tradition whereby the New Mexico delegation works together to secure funding for our national labs," Richardson said in a prepared statement. "It's disappointing that the Republican delegation has decided to lower itself to partisan posturing, rather than working together."
On the other side, Udall is also under pressure from antinuclear groups, who approve the committee's actions.
"Because of this bill's impact on Los Alamos, Rep. Udall stated his intention to vote against the bill when it reaches the House floor ... Wednesday," reported Devin Helfrich and David Culp of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, after watching the committee complete its work.
In an Action Alert to its 2,100-member mailing list, the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog organization, criticized the congressman for his opposition to the cuts.
"We were taken aback this week when Tom Udall spoke in the U.S. House of Representatives and in subsequent press interviews opposing cuts to the most aggressive parts of Bush's nuclear weapons agenda," wrote Greg Mello, the group's executive director. "These proposed cuts are very good news indeed ... Unfortunately, Mr. Udall is trying to stop them rather than protect and extend them."
Although funding for the Department of Energy would increase by $1.3 billion in the proposed bill for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, most of the weapons money would shift to energy research and nuclear nonproliferation.
Among the lab's cuts was a hold placed on construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility Replacement, for which the administration had requested $95,586,000.
Udall said he wants to see a plan for how the laboratory could get new work to boost funding that it may be losing from shrinking nuclear weapons accounts.
"The chairman committed to work with me in the weeks and months ahead to create a fair and open competitive process and to provide a mechanism to ensure our labs can compete for the funds being transferred from the weapons programs into energy and research and basic science," he stated after the committee's vote.
The bill is scheduled to reach the House floor on Wednesday, at which time amendments may be proposed. The final outcome still has a long way to go. The Senate appropriation process has yet to run its course and versions of bills passed by the two Houses will then be reconciled, to be approved by both bodies before going to President Bush for his signature.