House halts funds for new nuclear warhead

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 20, 2007 6:30pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday moved to block President George W. Bush from developing a new generation of atomic warheads, as Democratic and Republican opponents said the administration had not developed an adequate post-Cold War nuclear strategy.

A fiscal 2008 bill funding Department of Energy weapons programs that is moving through the House provided none of Bush's nearly $89 million request for continuing to develop the new warheads over the next few decades at a multibillion-dollar cost.

A vote on passing the overall bill was delayed until sometime after a July 4 holiday recess so lawmakers can review a series of unrelated projects that will be attached to the legislation.

The bill, which faces a White House veto threat because it would spend $1.1 billion more than Bush requested, still must be debated by the Senate.

"I don't think it is asking too much for a comprehensive nuclear strategy before we build a new nuclear weapon," said Rep. Peter Visclosky, the Indiana Democrat steering the money bill through the House.

Rep. David Hobson, an Ohio Republican, also voiced opposition, saying that while "The concept of RRW (Reliable Replacement Warhead) has merit if it allows us to have a smaller stockpile of more reliable weapons ... all we have right now is a vague promise."

The proposed warheads would replace some that are 30 years old and could deteriorate if not properly maintained. Some supporters of the new warhead argue that small changes might be needed to extend the life of the existing ones and that could lead to nuclear testing for the first time in more than a decade. They also say the large existing stockpile could be replaced with fewer, more efficient warheads.

But opponents challenge assertions that testing would not be needed for the new warhead. They also say the existing stockpile could be maintained indefinitely and there is no military need for a new, costly weapon.

DIPLOMATIC PROBLEMS

A House Appropriations Committee report said that going ahead with the program also would present diplomatic problems because "of the U.S. policy position of demanding other nations give up their nuclear ambitions while the U.S. aggressively pursues a program to build new nuclear warheads."

The Bush administration has been trying to pressure Iran to abandon a nuclear program that Tehran insists is aimed at energy production and not producing weapons. For a long time, the United States also has been cajoling North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.

In a statement last week, the White House said it "strongly opposes the committee's decision to eliminate funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead." But it did not say Bush would veto the bill over this issue.

Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican whose district includes the Sandia National Laboratories that works on nuclear weapons projects, called the House provision "devastating to American nuclear weapons capabilities" and said it was "rubbish" that the United States had not developed a post-Cold War strategy for nuclear weapons.

The House bill would spend $5.9 billion on Energy Department weapons programs, $632 million below Bush's request and $396 million below this year's level. It would cut 37 weapons program accounts.

The legislation would significantly increase nuclear nonproliferation activities, including money to secure nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union and to increase efforts to keep them from entering the United States.

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