The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced 30-1 Thursday a $43.8 billion draft Energy-Water fiscal 2019 spending measure before entering into a lengthy consideration of how to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons.
The bill would boost spending for the Energy Department, Army Corps of Engineers and related programs by $566 million compared to fiscal 2018 enacted appropriations and is $7.2 billion more than the Trump administration requested. The House version would fund the same agencies at $44.7 billion.
The committee considered four amendments to the bill and approved two: a manager’s amendment and one from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to expand the scope and federal agency participation for a study of moving the Appalachian Regional Commission’s headquarters.
Among the amendments not added was a measure, eventually withdrawn, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to prevent DOE from abandoning the over-budget, behind-schedule MOX facility in South Carolina that was to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.
Graham represented the lone dissenting vote on advancing the bill out of committee. He has expressed opposition to a new DOE strategy for disposing of the 34 metric tons of plutonium at a facility in New Mexico.
“Someone needs to be held accountable for starting programs like this, signing deals with the Russians and saying oh, never mind, after you get 70 percent complete,” Graham said. “You want to talk about the swamp, this is the swamp.”
The plan was the result of a 2000 disarmament treaty with the Russian Federation that was updated in 2010.
The new DOE strategy would call for a “dilute-and-dispose” approach for the plutonium, in which the material would be processed and diluted for storage in a defense repository in southeastern New Mexico. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Energy-Water Appropriations panel, argued this approach would represent $30 billion in savings compared to continuing the MOX project.
“Both Secretary Perry of the Trump administration and Secretary Moniz in the Obama administration agree that the project should be terminated because it costs too much,” Alexander said.
The savings, Alexander argued, would help free up money for other programs.
Still, pitfalls in the new strategy have yet to be worked out. New Mexico’s Democratic Sen. Tom Udall backed Graham’s argument, noting that the federal government has so far failed to adequately inform the state of safety risks and offer additional incentives for holding the waste. The opposition of Udall and Graham could become a roadblock for the plan.
“So far it’s a bad idea for New Mexico,” Udall said.
As their counterparts did at the committee markup of the House’s Energy-Water bill, Democrats expressed concern over funding for an additional low-yield nuclear weapon — the W76 warhead — as part of the administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review recommendation.
“I strongly believe the only purpose of a low-yield nuclear weapon is to fight a nuclear war,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “That should frighten all of us because I don’t believe there is such a thing of limited nuclear war.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered an amendment to redirect $65 million for the W76 weapon to DOE’s nonproliferation account.That amendment was defeated, 12-19.
Feinstein was successful in preventing funding in the original bill language for another nuclear weapon — the B83, a warhead with 75 times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She threatened to hold up the bill if the funding was included.
In a statement attached to a Democratic summary of the legislation, Feinstein said she was “disappointed the bill includes unnecessary funding for new nuclear weapons,” but said the measure “is the result of a truly bipartisan process.”
The Energy-Water bill represents the first appropriations bill to move out of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the fiscal 2019 cycle. Alexander said during the markup he hopes it can be one of the first few slated for floor consideration.
Alexander told reporters Wednesday that floor consideration of the bill will need to wait for House action before the Senate can pass its version. He said Senate consideration could come via a “minibus” vote in which the chamber would vote on multiple spending bills.
President Donald Trump has written to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to inform him their planned nuclear disarmament summit will not take place on June 12.
Trump pinned his decision on Kim’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in a recent statement, according to a letter released by the White House.
The president used the letter to send a new warning to the North Korean dictator: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
Despite his atomic warning, Trump left open the possibility of one day meeting with Kim to discuss a nuclear disarmament pact.
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“If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write,” he wrote. “The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker signaled he was not disappointed with Trump’s decision to cancel the summit.
“We need to make sure that when we have the meeting, it’s going to be something that’s productive,” Corker said.
Like Corker, other congressional Republicans were quick to applaud the president’s decision.
Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said in a statement that “North Korea has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate.”
“While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong Un’s fraud,” Cotton said. “As I have long said, our maximum-pressure campaign on North Korea must continue.”
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees South Asia policy, said in a statement that Trump “has made the right decision to cancel the summit ... until North Korea is ready to act in good faith to fully denuclearize,” adding the U.S. “must double down on our strategy of maximum pressure and engagement.”
During a Senate Foreign Relations hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey was skeptical of how the Trump administration handled the run-up to canceling the summit and its surprise at the recent North Korean rhetoric.
“The art of diplomacy is a lot harder than the ‘Art of the Deal,’” Menendez said, referencing the president’s best-selling 1987 book on business. “And the reality is that it’s pretty amazing that the administration might be shocked that North Korea is acting the way North Korea might very well normally act.”
Pompeo rejected accusations the summit fell apart due to a lack of preparation on the U.S. side.
“I think the American team is fully prepared. I think we are rockin’. I think we are ready,” he told the panel. “I think President Trump was ready. We were fully engaged over the last few weeks.”
Pompeo said he met with the Chinese foreign minister yesterday and received from him a commitment that China would maintain all U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
“The global pressure campaign that has been put in place needs to continue. That is very important so we can ultimately get to the right place,” the secretary said.
Menendez criticized Trump administration officials’ constant references to the “Libya model,” given the North Korean government’s apparent fear of being ousted from power. The New Jersey Democrat also questioned whether the president and his team had conducted any deep preparation for direct talks with Kim.
National security adviser John Bolton had floated the Libya model as what Trump and his team were following as they prepared to talk to Kim. But that raised alarms in Pyongyang, because the United States ultimately supported the movement that led to the ouster and death of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce of California struck a notably less hawkish tone than did Trump. “Our goal is to peacefully end North Korea’s nuclear threats,” he said in a statement. “The administration should continue to look for opportunities while applying maximum diplomatic and financial pressure against Kim Jong Un.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan also mentioned a peaceful resolution. “The North Korean regime has long given ample reason to question its commitment to stability,” he said Thursday. “We must continue to work with our allies toward a peaceful resolution, but that will require a much greater degree of seriousness from the Kim regime.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer used part of his opening floor remarks to say many in his party feared the summit would amount to “a great show that produced nothing enduring.” He said any new try at talks must start with the Trump administration focused on a “concrete, verifiable, enduring elimination of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear capabilities.”
Trump called the failed summit a “truly sad moment in history.”
The North in recent days had lashed out at senior Trump administration officials. Its vice foreign minister criticized officials like Vice President Mike Pence and Bolton, questioning their sincerity ahead of the now-scuttled talks.
A senior North Korean official, Choe Son-hui, on Thursday referred to Pence as a “political dummy” for his comments about North Korea possibly ending up like Libya. Even though Trump this week tried to assure Kim he would be protected after any deal, North Korean officials showed their concern about Trump administration officials’ mentions of Libya.
In one of two statements issued on May 16, the North’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, urged Trump and his administration to approach the summit with “sincerity,” saying only that the approach would have been met with “a deserved response from us.”
“However, if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit,” he said.
In another forum, the vice foreign minister attacked Bolton, saying, “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him.”
After senior South Korean officials delivered an invitation from Kim to Washington on March 8, Trump accepted on the spot. The move shocked his top aides and U.S. lawmakers, with even typically critical Democrats giving him credit for getting further with a North Korean leader than previous American commanders in chief.
Such a meeting would have been the first between an American president and a North Korean leader.
Other topics about which the GOP president speaks a lot in public —immigration, the economy, and trade and tax cuts, among others — are sure to be part of Trump’s midterm campaign message to voters.
But one GOP strategist doubts a failed Kim summit — should a meeting not happen before Election Day in November — will help decide which party controls the House and Senate.
“Polling indicates voters give him a lot of credit for getting this far,” the GOP strategist said. “I don’t see evidence of a punishment on something that everyone agrees was always going to be a really hard thing just to make happen, let alone leave with a deal.”
Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.
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Rep. Seth Moulton is apparently riding high after a candidate he endorsed in a key Kentucky race won her Democratic primary Tuesday.
The Massachusetts Democrat added three more military veteran candidates to his Serve America leadership PAC endorsement list on Wednesday: a former Obama administration official in New Hampshire, a state senator in Nevada, and a retired Navy commander who was one of the first women in the Navy’s nuclear program.
“I am really proud to have the support of my fellow Marine and Iraq veteran,” Sullivan said of Moulton’s endorsement in a statement Wednesday. “I respect his leadership, commitment to service, to our country and to working toward something much bigger than ourselves.”
“As the first lesbian member of the Nevada State Legislature, Dr. Pat Spearman paved the way for others to answer the call to serve,” Moulton said. “In the State Senate, Pat focused on job creation by diversifying Nevada’s renewable energy sources, a forward-looking approach that addresses the challenges of the modern economy."
“Pat will bring that same innovative thinking with her to Washington,” he said.
Gonzales rates the race for the open seat Likely Democratic.
“Elaine Luria has a proven ability to lead. In the Navy, she commanded a combat-ready unit of 400 sailors. Now, she’s stepping up to serve again,” Moulton said. “Elaine has the courage to be honest about the problems we face, put country over party, and get things done for the American people.”
Gonzales rates the race for the seat held by Republican Rep. Scott Walker as Likely Republican.
Moulton, a retired Marine and Iraq war veteran, has spent nearly $2 million through his PAC on 19 first-time congressional candidates who have served in the armed forces. He was instrumental providing ground support in the final weeks of Rep. Conor Lamb’s successful special election campaign in Pennsylvania's 18th District in March.
On Tuesday, former Marine veteran Amy McGrath won the Democratic nomination in Kentucky's 6th District for the chance to take on GOP Rep. Andy Barr in a race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Lean Republican.
Moulton's team sent out 44,000 peer-to-peer text messages in the district on the final weekend before the primary urging voters to hit the ballot box.