WASHINGTON ― Defense hawks in Congress are pushing a contentious plan to give the Pentagon a stronger hand in crafting nuclear weapons budgets, but the Trump administration has been sending mixed messaging over recent weeks about whether the change is needed.

The Senate-passed version of the annual defense policy bill would give the Pentagon-led Nuclear Weapons Council a say in the budget development of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that’s responsible for the stockpile’s safety, security, and effectiveness.

However, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities Vic Mercado told reporters that change is unneeded; the status quo between the Defense Department’s nuclear modernization efforts and NNSA is appropriate.

“I think right now we have it about right,” Mercado said in an interview this month. Nuclear deterrence falls under Mercado’s portfolio as an adviser to the defense secretary and undersecretary for policy.

The remarks could be read as neutral as the House and Senate debate competing proposals as part of their deliberations on the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

A Senate-passed proposal would grant the Nuclear Weapons Council new authority to edit NNSA’s budget request after the Energy Department crafts it and before the request is submitted to the White House budget office.

The House-passed bill would instead establish the secretaries of defense and energy as co-chairs of the Nuclear Weapons Council, versus the undersecretary of defense for acquisition of sustainment and the NNSA administrator today.

Mercado said that he had “heard of all these initiatives to try to skew it one way or the other,” but that the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition of Sustainment Ellen Lord, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the armed services and DoD’s policy shop, today all share, “a very healthy and productive” relationship on the topic of nuclear weapons.

“The work we’ve done with NNSA, as we we go through modernization, prioritization and efforts like that to make sure that their industrial base and [plutonium] pit generation is healthy and supports us ― I think there’s there’s always creative tension, but I think it’s healthy tension,” Mercado said.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

Separately, the House passed a prohibition on DoD coordinating the NNSA budget within the Nuclear Weapons Council as part of a larger appropriations package.

The White House’s July 30 threat to veto the package objected to that provision, saying: “While respecting the independence of each department is important, ensuring the proper degree of coordination in the nuclear modernization efforts of both departments is also important.”

Key Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have been pressing for more public advocacy from the administration against those Democrat-led proposals.

At an Aug. 6 hearing, several lawmakers prompted the nominee to be assistant secretary of defense nuclear, chemical, biological, and defense programs, Lucas Polakowski, to argue the council should provide guidance and assistance to the NNSA as it develops its budget each year.

SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and a top nuclear modernization advocate asked Polakowski: “If confirmed, what would you think if you were prevented from even seeing the NNSA budget until after it was finalized for submission to Congress?”

“I think that would be a mistake and would severely impair not only our existing triad but our modernization efforts going forward in the future and, in fact, could potentially jeopardize our national defense quite significantly,” Polakowski responded.

Inhofe outlined the House proposal, eliciting Polakowski’s opinion: “I think that’s a mistake and I would not support it, senator.” Polakowski also agreed with Inhofe that this would give the energy secretary new, “veto power” in the budgeting process.

Inhofe earlier in the year clashed with Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette after he backed a larger budget request than Brouillette sought.

In an exchange with Airland Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Polakowski warned that if DoD didn’t participate in NNSA’s budget process, it would lead to “uncontrolled spending. And most importantly, our nation’s deterrent would suffer.”

Polakowski would be designated staff secretary for the Nuclear Weapons Council. A managing member at IT firm Everest Technologies, he previously served as deputy director at U.S. Strategic Command’s Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Earlier in the hearing, SASC ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Polakowski of his, “concerns about your expertise in nuclear matters, since you have great experience in chemical and biological weapons. I would hope you will focus a great deal of your attention on getting up to speed with respect to nuclear matters.”

As Congress deliberates on the defense policy bill, the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank released its recommendations Tuesday, which argued against elevating the chairmanship of the Nuclear Weapons Council to the secretary level, as the House proposed. For one, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition of sustainment has, “the expertise and time to give nuclear weapons the attention they deserve.”

“The House change would put the Secretary of Energy in a position to veto decisions that relate exclusively to DOD capabilities,” the report reads. “As the customer of the NNSA, the DOD should maintain its sole leadership of the council.”