It’s the latest flashpoint in a partisan divide over whether to pursue a new, tactical submarine-launched nuclear missile. The Pentagon and others advocate for the systems to deter Russia from using its own arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons, but opponents see it as lowering the threshold for a nuclear war.
The Senate Armed Services Committee began debate on its $716 billion annual defense policy bill Wednesday, which contains a provision removing restrictions on the U.S. development or deployment of such a weapon without congressional authorization. The bill would grant the energy secretary new authority to carry out the weapon’s energy development phase, or any subsequent phase, without Congress’ specific approval.
Democrats plan to offer an amendment to preserve congressional oversight, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a floor speech Wednesday. Reed is among lawmakers who crafted the restrictions in 2003.
“I have spent countless hours [on the issue], and I’m not alone,” Reed said. “My colleagues on the committee and many members of this Senate have spent hours thinking about the issues that are caused by these proposals. I’m concerned that we have not fully grasped all the complex implications. Indeed, there is an honest disagreement among experts in the field on this issue.”
“Given the policy ramifications of development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons and any type of nuclear weapon, I believe that Congress should be involved every step of the way,” Reed said.
Reed’s House counterpart, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has voiced outright opposition to the weapons.
The 1,140-page 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which still faces months of congressional debate before becoming law, tackles a broad range of policy and budgetary matters, including troop pay, weapons procurement and bureaucratic reforms. It must be reconciled with its analogue in the House, where Republicans parried other Democratic attempts to scuttle the weapon.
The panel’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe — who is stewarding the bill while SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., battles cancer at home — seemed to support the idea of a floor debate on the matter as the chamber takes up amendments to the bill.
“I know there will be some controversy,” Inhofe said in his floor speech. “The ranking member and I don’t agree on everything, and this is one area that we probably don’t agree on. We want to have amendments and open debate, and that’s what we’re going to have.”
SASC Airland Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cotton, R-Ark., authored the bill’s language, and he appeared to be ready for debate this week.
“It’s troubling that Democrats want to play politics with our national security, but we simply can’t afford to let our adversaries around the world have the competitive edge when it comes to nuclear weapons,” Cotton communications director Caroline Tabler said in an email Tuesday.
In the opposing corner is senior Democratic appropriator Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has said she is troubled by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and its call for a new weapon. On Tuesday, she alerted colleagues to the Cotton amendment, reading it at the Democratic Caucus lunch meeting.
She has expressed objection to a Cabinet-level secretary being able to initiate the advanced engineering a new nuclear weapon without Congress’ specific approval.
“The amendment, I think, is very dangerous,” she said Wednesday.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.