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House Bill Shifts Some Nuclear Weapons Funds To Pay for Veterans Care

Refurbishing old nukes can wait. Improving veterans’ healthcare and financial options can't, House lawmakers say. By Douglas P. Guarino

The version of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill that the House approved last week would cut some controversial nuclear weapons spending in a bid to help veterans.

The legislation -- which authorizes but does not appropriate funds for military-related items -- includes two related amendments offered by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. Together they would cut $7.5 million out of the $643 million that the Obama administration requested for controversial efforts to extend the life of B-61 gravity bombs, many of which are stationed in Europe.

The two provisions also would take $7.5 million out of projects to refurbish the Navy's W-76 nuclear warhead -- more than half of the funding boost that the Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee had sought to authorize for the program. The bill would allow up to $266.3 million in spending on W-76 refurbishment, still $7.1 million more than the Obama administration requested.

The money -- along with $15 million that would be cut from the Navy's shipbuilding budget -- would fund two initiatives:

One would create "a training program to increase and improve financial literacy and training for incoming and out-going military personnel," according to the legislation. According to a statement Kildee provided to Global Security Newswire, this would help address a problem of "unscrupulous lenders" targeting service members.

The other would require the Pentagon to commission a third-party study meant to "identify deficiencies in the treatment of wounded warriors and offer recommendations to the secretary of Defense and Congress to improve such treatment," the measure states.

The House approval of Kildee's amendments comes amid furor on Capitol Hill over revelations about former service members who died while on a Veterans Affairs waiting list for medical appointments in Phoenix.

According to Kildee's staff, "at a time when our wounded service members are not getting the adequate care they deserve, it is a misplaced priority to spend more money on such nuclear refurbishment programs for outdated weapons systems, especially when the Pentagon has not even asked for it."

The House also approved, by a 224-199 vote, an amendment offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., that would require the Congressional Budget Office to update its report on the projected costs of U.S. nuclear forces on an annual basis. The move follows a report earlier this year by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies arguing that the current plan for modernizing the arsenal is too costly to implement.

The Republican-led House Rules Committee, however, blocked floor debate on an amendment offered by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and John Garamendi, D-Calif., calling for more in-depth analysis on the need to maintain all three components of the so-called nuclear triad.

The provision would have required the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to study the justification and rationale for maintaining the three components, which include bombs that can be dropped by aircraft, along with ballistic missiles both at sea and on land. The measure would also have instructed the GAO study and to identify any excess costs that could be trimmed.

The House approved by voice vote an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., -- whose home state hosts ground-based missile silos -- that would make it "the policy of the United States to operate, sustain and modernize or replace the triad" in its entirety.

The House bill also contains language, to which the White House objects, that would require that every intercontinental ballistic missile silo currently containing a deployed missile be kept operational.

At press time, all of the potential discrepancies with the House bill and the Senate version of the annual defense authorization bill were not yet clear. The Senate Armed Services Committee completed drafting its version of the bill on Thursday, but had not yet released the full text of the legislation.

One apparent difference is that the Senate bill would authorize $365 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program -- the entire amount that the Obama administration requested. The CTR program -- which secures and dismantles potential weapons of mass destruction throughout the world that are considered to be a threat to the United States -- would be cut by $10.5 million under the House bill.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate legislation would also provide $346 million -- $145 million more than the administration requested -- to continue construction of a controversial facility in South Carolina that would convert excess bomb-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel. The administration is looking to suspend construction of the facility while it explores other, possibly cheaper, methods of disposing of the plutonium.

Some lawmakers are questioning the administration's cost estimates, however, and have suggested it should be able to make a decision in less than the 18 months it has projected. Senate appropriators at a budget hearing earlier this month gave National Nuclear Security Administration officials two weeks to come up with new ways to make the original mixed-oxide fuel conversion plan cost less.

According to NNSA spokesman Derrick Robinson, administration officials did have a follow-up meeting with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. last week. It was "a substantive conversation that discussed a range of options and challenges, which included a discussion of MOX costs and options," he said.

Robinson did not provide any revised cost projections.

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