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Analysis: Funding cuts loom at labs

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Beyond the federal government shutdown, Congress is lurching toward what could be substantial budget cuts for nuclear weapons work at New Mexico’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

The budget problems extend past the near-term question of a shutdown at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, which are both preparing to mothball their operations and send most of their nearly 20,000 employees home by the end of next week

While near-term attention is focused on whether Congress will act in time to prevent lab shutdowns, Los Alamos and Sandia face a longer-term problem that could reduce federal nuclear weapons spending in New Mexico by hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming year, even if the shutdowns are avoided.

That is because longer-term spending plans for small agencies like the National Nuclear Security Administration have largely been relegated to budgeting on autopilot.

Those autopilot measures, a combination of “continuing resolutions” to fund work at last year’s levels and the automatic “sequester” cuts approved in a 2011 budget deal, would lead to significant cuts for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons budget.

One such bill, passed Friday by the House, would cut the weapons budget 8 percent, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. If those cuts are applied evenly across the agency for the next 12 months, they would translate to a $240 million reduction in federal spending in New Mexico over the next 12 months.

Ironically, the congressional gridlock could soon accomplish what arms control activists have repeatedly failed to do, curbing the rapid growth of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget. The result could force the labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration to seriously consider steps nuclear weapons opponents have long advocated, including less emphasis on large nuclear weapon design and remanufacturing projects and multi-billion dollar buildings to do the work, said Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group. “They’re going to have to change their paradigm,” Mello said.map template

While Friday’s bill, part of a House Republican strategy to reopen the government one agency at a time, appears to be dead in the Senate, similar approaches to settling the spending arguments have already won general support from both Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress. The cuts, if they go into effect, would wipe out budget increases pushed by the Obama administration, often with congressional objection, as part of a bargain to win support for a 2010 arms control deal with the Russians.

Members of Congress and the Obama administration have in recent years overridden the budget autopilot and protected the weapons program from the cuts sweeping the federal government, allowing steady increases in recent years to fund what defense officials say are needed upgrades to our nuclear arsenal, and the laboratory infrastructure and personnel needed to carry out the work.

A similar intervention now would be needed to prevent the cuts. But the administration and Congress have shown little willingness to support continued increases this time around, said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Work upgrading the nation’s B61 nuclear bombs, much of it done at Sandia, is especially vulnerable, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told reporters in a telephone news conference last month. “The future of the B61 program, which keeps our nuclear weapons stockpile safe and protects our national security, depends on getting additional money,” Udall said.

To fund the B61 and other work it says is necessary to maintain the U.S. arsenal, the Obama administration asked Congress for $7.9 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons work in fiscal year 2014. But Congress, unable to come to agreement on a 2014 spending plan, is on a path to instead approve some sort of “continuing resolution,” a path of least resistance that simply continues spending at last year’s levels.

Compounding the difficulties, all current versions of the continuing resolution legislation, including the one passed Friday by the House, would then impose automatic cuts on last year’s number as part of the “sequester” budget-cutting deal Congress and the White House agreed to in the summer of 2011. Those cuts were at the time viewed as so draconian that they would force the warring political parties to come to some sort of broad budget deal, but that so far has not happened.

Friday’s temporary spending bill for the National Nuclear Security Administration passed the House 248-176, with New Mexico’s congressional delegation splitting along party lines. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican from southern New Mexico, voted “yes,” issuing a statement saying the bill “is key to the security of our nation, and assures that the hard-working employees of Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs will continue to have jobs.”

Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose districts include Los Alamos and Sandia, respectively, voted against it. Lujan, in a floor speech Friday, said the NNSA budget is critical to New Mexico, but he pointed to the fact that the bill would actually cut lab budgets. He called the bill a “shame and a sham.”

Journal Washington D.C. correspondent Michael Coleman contributed to this report

 

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