Friday, September 21, 2007
Sens. Work to Delay Lab Cuts
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation pushed this week for a
stop-gap federal budget plan that would delay deep cuts in spending at New
Mexico's nuclear weapons laboratories.
But the effort is entangled in a broader battle over how to handle
Congress' failure to pass fiscal year 2008 spending plans.
Thousands of New Mexico jobs at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs are
at stake, as well as the future of a major nuclear weapons manufacturing
effort at Los Alamos.
Both Sandia and Los Alamos are preparing worst-case contingency plans
for dealing with the possibility that as many as 3,000 of their 22,000
employees could lose their jobs.
The new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1— in just 10 days. But Congress
hasn't completed any spending bills, and partisan bickering has broken out
in Washington over what to do about the problem.
In the long term, the battle is over deep divisions between the House of
Representatives, which wants to cut the nuclear weapons program, and the
Senate, which does not.
This year's nuclear weapons budget is $6.3 billion, including $1.5
billion at Los Alamos and $1 billion at Sandia. The House is proposing a 9.4
percent cut in 2008. The Senate wants to increase the budget 3.3 percent.
The specific effect of cuts on each lab is unknown.
Proposed House cuts, in addition to eliminating thousands of jobs at
Sandia and Los Alamos, would put the brakes on a plan to expand the
manufacture of plutonium nuclear weapon parts at Los Alamos.
But all eyes are on the short term now— what to do come Oct. 1 to fund
things while a final spending plan is worked out.
New Mexico's two senators Thursday pushed for a short-term solution that
would allow spending to continue at this year's budget level, avoiding the
need for cuts until at least mid-November while members of the House and
Senate try to work out their disagreements over the nuclear weapons budget.
That approach would provide "some stability while the appropriations
process plays out," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Sen. Pete Domenici,
R-N.M., wrote in a letter Thursday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But one of their colleagues, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has a very
different idea. In a plan unveiled Wednesday, DeMint proposed that stop-gap
funding be made at a lower level.
Under DeMint's proposal, until final budgets are worked out each federal
program would be funded at the lowest of (a) the House's proposed spending
level, (b) the Senate's proposed spending level, or (c) the current year's
For the labs, that would mean the deep House cuts would take effect
immediately, though they might be undone later by the final House-Senate
Domenici said in a telephone interview Thursday that he would fight
DeMint's proposal. But other observers said it wouldn't be surprising to see
DeMint's plan win the day, given that Congress has used that approach in the
"That's a reasonable expectation," said Stephen Slivinski, a budget
analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
While Congress scrambled to meet its deadline, lab officials scrambled
to come up with contingency plans.
Until budget numbers become final, lab spokesmen say they won't know how
many jobs might need to be cut. But the labs have launched the first steps
of the legally mandated job-cutting procedure, preparing draft work force
Those plans will include the process to be used for possible job
reductions, said Sandia spokesman Rod Geer.
Once approved by the secretary of energy, the plans go through a public
comment period and a 120-day clock starts ticking before anyone actually
loses his job.
That means the first forced job cuts at Los Alamos and Sandia could not
come until early next year.