WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed a radical change to how the nuclear weapons budget is formed every year, one which would give the Department of Defense a far stronger hand in crafting the funding for nuclear issues.

The language, contained in Section 3111 of the SASC’s proposed National Defense Authorization Act, would give the Pentagon-led Nuclear Weapons Council a say in the budget development of the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NNSA is a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy that has oversight of America’s nuclear warheads.

The move follows a contentious budget fight earlier this year between DOE and congressional supporters of the Pentagon, which ultimately resulted in NNSA receiving a significant budget increase over what Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette requested. During that disagreement, Brouillette clashed with Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the SASC chairman who crafted the newest budget proposal.

The January flare-up over NNSA’s budget was “certainly the driving factor” in SASC’s push to modify how the budget process works, according to a SASC aide, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of NDAA negotiations. But the aide added that it has been “fairly clear” for a while that “the system as it’s set up right now, in law and by practice, is not functioning very efficiently.”

Under the proposal, NNSA’s budget request would still be built within the DOE. But instead of the request then going to the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the whole government budget process, NNSA’s portion would be sent first to the Nuclear Weapons Council. The council would assess and make changes to the request in order to better align it with the Pentagon’s views of what is needed, and then send the document back to the DOE.

The Energy Department would then be required to submit the language as marked up by the council to OMB. The SASC aide told Defense News that the request that arrives at OMB would be clearly marked as to what changes the DoD requested, in order to provide transparency surrounding the process.

The language would not change the ability for OMB and the president to ultimately have the final say on funding levels for the agencies. But it would give the Nuclear Weapons Council — chaired by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and made up of five other top Pentagon officials and the NNSA administrator — a newly enlarged voice on formulating the budget, one that critics worry would focus on weapon modernization over all other matters.

“If these provisions were to become law, other Energy Department national security missions, such as defense environmental cleanup, would be at greater risk from the budget ax,” said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. “Instead of giving the council even freer rein, Congress should be seeking more transparency from the council about its deliberations and how it goes about generating requirements for the nuclear arsenal.”

The SASC aide countered that the language of Section 3112, which would require NNSA’s budget be submitted as its own entity, separate from other nuclear weapon-related activities, was written with that issue in mind. The intent, per the aide, is to specifically avoid a situation where the Nuclear Weapons Council requests higher funding for NNSA’s weapons programs, which in turn could come out of defense cleanup efforts elsewhere at DOE.

In jurisdictional terms, the development of nuclear weapons falls under the House and Senate Armed Services committees and so should not require approval from the energy committees in Congress, the aide said. The aide also stated that the language for the provision was based on a rule already in place for years that allows the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to modify the budgets of programs within other government agencies related to drug policies.

The opposition lines up

None of that is making the proposal popular with Energy Department officials. Roll Call reported Tuesday that Brouillette, the energy secretary, wrote a letter to Inhofe flatly opposing the move on the grounds it “leaves the Secretary with responsibility for the program, while removing his or her ability to effectively manage it.”

NNSA spokeswoman Ana Gamonal de Navarro said in a statement that the agency “strongly objects” to the language in the NDAA.

“Granting the Department of Defense authority over the Department of Energy’s annual budget undermines DOE’s position as a separate and equal Cabinet-level agency,” Navarro said. “It also subjects the priorities of NNSA to DoD’s discretion, potentially causing setbacks and underfunding of other critically important missions of the DOE’s NNSA and Environmental Management programs. We urge Congress to allow DOE and NNSA to continue to work together to deliver a budget that will support our mission and commitment to the American people.”

As the language heads to the full Senate for a debate, supporters of the DOE are lining up to try and block the SASC language from moving forward.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has teamed with the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va,. to oppose the language, according to Roll Call.

And on Monday evening, energy committee member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., blasted the proposed legislation as “really egregious” language that would “wrestle away control of our nuclear arsenal and give it to the military.”

As of now, there is no corresponding language in the House Armed Services Committee, which heads for markup on Wednesday. It seems unlikely the House, controlled by Democrats who have expressed skepticism about Pentagon nuclear modernization efforts in recent years, would mirror the SASC language.

The SASC aide said Inhofe had reached out to all the relevant players to try and preempt opposition, but “generally, the Department of Energy was unwilling to acknowledge that there had been any issue in the process,” the aide said. “In this case we believe it was necessary because otherwise nothing was happening.”