The House Armed Services Committee so far does not plan a hearing on a Democrat-sponsored bill to ban development of a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the panel's chairman said Tuesday.
In a press gaggle with Capitol Hill reporters, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the House would soon recess until the Nov. 6 midterm elections, when all members of the lower-chamber will defend their seats, and that Congress already debated the merits of a low-yield warhead this summer before passing the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law Aug. 13.
“[M]embers have already had a pretty good opportunity not only to hear, but to vote their opinion and it was [a] pretty strong outcome that people believed that lower-yield nukes would help increase the credibility of our nuclear deterrent,” Thornberry said in response to a question from Defense Daily.
Before it leaves town this week, the House has to join the Senate in passing a multi-agency spending bill that would fund the Pentagon for fiscal year 2019, and keep many other federal agencies at their 2018 budgets until Dec. 7. The House Rules Committee was scheduled to write a rule of debate for the unified appropriations bill Tuesday evening, setting the stage for a House vote as soon as Wednesday.
The House is scheduled to meet 16 times between election day and the end of the year, and when it returns "we’ll see what are the key pressing issues then," Thornberry said. The 115th Congress will gavel out the first week of January, at which point any bills not signed into law during that two-year legislative session will be null and void.
Legislation introduced on Sept. 18 by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and some Democratic colleagues would prohibit spending funds appropriated to the Departments of Energy and Defense in fiscal 2019 for work on the warhead. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is among the measure’s all-Democratic co-sponsors. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed an essentially identical bill in the Senate.
Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate and have already secured $65 million in 2019 funding for the Department of Energy to build the low-yield warhead at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. The weapon, which will tip Trident II D-5 missiles carried aboard the Navy’s Ohio-class submarines, is to be a modified version of the Trident’s existing W76 warhead.
The Trump administration says the United States needs the low-yield warhead to check similarly powerful Russian weapons, which some in the administration fear Moscow might use to win a war it starts, but cannot finish, with conventional weapons.
Opponents of the low-yield warhead, including many congressional Democrats, say the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is sufficient to deter the Kremlin from using a low-yield nuclear weapon in any circumstance.
Even if Democrats retake control of the House and Senate this year, President Trump, whose administration ordered up the low-yield warhead, will wield a veto pen for the entire 116th Congress. That session begins in January and would gavel out in January 2021, just before Trump’s first term ends.
Vivienne Machi contributed to this story from Washington.