Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the outcome of the Senate vote on tabling a measure to require Congress to authorize new or modified nuclear weapons. The measure was not tabled.
The narrow 47-51 vote not to table that legislation — a proposed amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act — was the latest move in a partisan chess game over development of a new, tactical submarine-launched nuclear missile.
The Pentagon and congressional Republicans advocate for the systems to deter Russia from using its own arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons, but many Democrats and other opponents see it as lowering the threshold for a nuclear war.
The vote saw only Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Rand Paul, R-Ky., cross party lines to vote with Democrats, helping them win the vote.
The victory was short-lived however. Reed’s proposed amendment was made to another amendment, from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. On Thursday, Lee’s amendment was ruled non-germane and it failed, taking Reed’s proposed amendment with it.
The Senate on Wednesday was close to ending debate on its $716 billion NDAA. That bill contains a provision that would remove statutory restrictions on the U.S. development or deployment of such a weapon without congressional authorization.
That language would have granted the energy secretary new authority to carry out the weapon’s energy development phase, or any subsequent phase, without Congress’ specific approval.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., offered the amendment to preserve congressional oversight.
“It simply maintains the status quo and says if we’re going to develop a new weapons system, come to us,” Reed said of his amendment before the vote.
“We get to debate it, we approve it or we don’t approve it. But the American people can rest assured that this is not something that has simply moved through the administrative channels of any executive ― this president or any other president.”
The panel’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe — who stewarded the bill while SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is battling cancer at home — opposed Reed’s amendment, citing the administration’s call for the new weapon in the new Nuclear Posture Review.
“I think we ought to have every capability that the Russians have,” said Inhofe, R-Okla. “Of course we won’t have that unless we have the low-yield capability. I’d hate to have our country in a position where the only choice we have is to do nothing or to use the high-yield weapons that we don’t want to use.”
Reed’s House counterpart, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has voiced outright opposition to the weapons.
A vote to pass the Senate version of the NDAA is expected early next week. From there, the sweeping 1,140-page bill must be reconciled with its analogue in the House, where Republicans there parried other Democratic attempts to thwart the new nuclear weapon.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.