WASHINGTON ― No funding would be available for live nuclear weapons testing under an amendment the House adopted to its version of the annual defense policy bill.
The amendment from Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, was adopted, 227-179, in a mostly party-line vote. The House is expected to vote Tuesday to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
The amendment marks the second rebuke of the Trump administration amid reports it’s mulling a resumption of nuclear weapons testing for the first time since 1992. The House Appropriations Committee passed a similar ban earlier this month.
The amendment’s adoption will likely make it harder for House Republicans to vote for the House’s FY21 NDAA, and it creates a roadblock for negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the NDAA set aside $10 million to speed up preparations in case the U.S. decides to resume nuclear testing. Since 1992, the U.S. has relied on simulations and non-explosive testing to assess the health and capabilities of the nuclear arsenal.
“Explosive nuclear testing is not necessary to ensure our stockpile remains safe and nothing in this amendment would change that,” McAdams said in a floor speech ahead of the vote. “Explosive nuclear testing causes irreparable harm to human health and to our environment. and jeopardizes the U.S. leadership role on nuclear nonproliferation.”
But critics said press reports about a possible resumption in testing were inaccurate and that the amendment would both undermine the confidence of U.S. allies who rely on America’s nuclear deterrent and invite adversaries to test America’s resolve.
“We need to be ready,” said HASC ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. “The harder we make it to test, the more obstacles we put in the way of a test ― only if needed, but the harder we make it for a test, the less credible our nuclear deterrent is.”
In May, the Washington Post reported there have been high-level discussions around the possibility of doing a live nuclear test. However, Marshall Billingslea, the top US envoy for nuclear negotiations, told reporters last month he was, “unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage, but added that he would not rule it out.
“I won’t shut the door on it, because why would we,” he said.
The House, separately, adopted an amendment that would give the energy secretary a stronger hand in setting nuclear policy by making him co-chair, alongside the defense secretary, of the Nuclear Weapons Council. The council is charged with the coordinating policy to manage the existing nuclear weapons stockpile and plan future nuclear deterrents.
The amendment, from House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., is to “to provide Cabinet-level visibility and accountability of our nuclear deterrent and the NWC budget process,” according to an amendment summary. Under current law, DoD’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment chairs the council.
It was adopted in larger package of amendments, approved by a bipartisan 336-71.
The vote is the latest move in a running battle over who controls the nuclear weapons budget submission. SASC’s proposed version of the FY21 NDAA would allow the council to edit the budget request after the Energy Department crafts it and before the request is submitted to the White House budget office. But House appropriators earlier this month approved a spending bill that would bar such a move.
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.