The House of Representatives on Friday passed a $1.3 trillion “minibus” appropriations package that would give the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) $2 billion less than it requested for fiscal 2021, even as the Senate has yet to release any spending bills and remains tangled up in controversy over a new COVID-19 relief bill.

Congress will have to untie the knot if it wishes to avoid a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government operating after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, in the walk-up to the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections.

The White House on Thursday threatened to veto the House’s six-bill minibus, which passed along an essentially party line of 217-197 and includes $18 billion for the NNSA starting Oct. 1. 

That is less than the roughly $20 billion the Department of Energy agency says it needs this year to keep major infrastructure upgrades and nuclear-weapon modernization programs on track. However, it is over $1 billion more than the agency will get if the Senate cannot start its own appropriations soon, and Congress must extend current spending levels with a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.

The House minibus denies NNSA funding to start developing a new submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead, and shorts the agency’s request for infrastructure upgrades, particularly improvements needed to produce new war-ready plutonium warhead cores this decade. It does provide the requested $2.6 billion to four ongoing weapons-modernization programs: about 20% above the 2020 budget for those programs.

But Charles Verdon, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs, said Wednesday that if the agency does not get its infrastructure-funding wishlist in a 2021 budget bill, that “will impact … acquisition schedules” of warheads that depend on infrastructure upgrades.

That notably applies to the W87-1 warhead for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles the Air Force wants to start deploying around 2030. The NNSA cannot start manufacturing that warhead without new pits that are supposed to be fastball in an expanded Los Alamos facility starting in 2024. However, Verdon has said the NNSA could adapt W87-0 warheads from the existing Minuteman III fleet, which the new missile will replace, if the agency has no W87-1 warheads by the time the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent is ready.

In its statement of administration policy, the White House said it strongly objected to the House’s decision not to give NNSA all the funding it requested, and to a provision of the bill that would prohibit the civilian agency from collaborating with the joint DoE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council on future budget requests.

It demonstrates again the White House’s total buy in for the NNSA’s revision of its medium-term funding needs.

As tallied this week in a new report from the Government Accountability Office, DoE now estimates it needs $81 billion for nuclear modernization in the fiscal years 2021-2025 — $15 billion more than it estimated in 2020 it would require for those five years.

Such an increase may require cuts in other national defense programs to keep the defense budget within spending limits,the Government Accountability Office wrote.

Stockpile Major Modernization (formerly Life Extension Programs and Major Alterations – Millions of $) FY 2021 House Appropriations  FY 2021 House Appropriations vs FY 2021 Request FY 2021 House Appropriations vs FY 2020 Final Appropriation
TOTAL 2,614 -47.0 -1.1% 2,667 +8.0%
B61 Life Extension Program (Gravity Bomb) 816 EVEN N/A +23.1 +2.9%
W76 Life Extension Program (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile warhead/Trident II D5; Finished) 0 EVEN EVEN
W76-2 Modification Program (Low-Yield SLBM/Trident II D5; Finished) 0 EVEN -10.0 -100.0%
W88 Alt 370 (W88 Alteration Program; SLBM) 257 EVEN -47.3 -15.5%
W80-4 Life Extension Program (Air-Launched Cruise Missile/Long Range Standoff Weapon) 1,000 EVEN +101.8 +11.3%
W87-1 Modification Program (formerly IW-1; Intercontinental Ballistic Missile warhead/Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) 541 EVEN +429.0 +383.0%
W93 (SLBM/Trident II D5 and Trident follow-on; Proposed) 0 -53.0 -100.0% N/A N/A

There was no real floor debate about NNSA programs this week in the House. Lawmakers appeared to have largely exhausted that topic in committee. The single NNSA-related amendment that made it to the floor, a Republican proposal, failed on a voice vote, without much GOP protest. 

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, would have erased language in the $49 billion energy and water portion of the minibus forbidding the NNSA to use its 2021 budget to collaborate with the Pentagon on future budget requests for civilian weapons programs.

“I believe it would be better to improve the bill text … rather than strike the language entirely,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), ranking member of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, said of the Democratic-authored passage, and Turner’s effort to repeal it. Simpson has warned already this year that the language could prevent routine collaboration between the NNSA and the joint DOD-DoE Nuclear Weapons Council, which aims to keep civilian- and military-led nuclear weapons procurements in sync.

On the other hand, Simpson said he opposed giving the secretary of energy anything less than complete control over the NNSA’s budget. The Senate Armed Services Committee proposed giving the Pentagon veto power over the NNSA budget, but the proposal failed on the Senate floor.

Simpson, as the senior GOP member of the panel that writes the NNSA’s annual budget, was the only Republican to delve into the civilian weapons complex on the floor this week. He repeated that the Democrat majority’s bill, which he “reluctantly” opposed, short-changes the NNSA by withholding money for key infrastructure upgrades, including the plutonium pit processing facility planned at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. 

At Savannah River, the NNSA is converting the partially built Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility into a plant capable of casting new fissile warhead cores by 2030. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is also on the hook to produce new war-ready pits in an upgraded Plutonium Facility (PF-4), starting in 2024.

The House bill has less funding than requested by the NNSA for both pit plants, but the PF-4 upgrades would get more than double the funding they received for 2020 at around $680 million, which is still 20% below the request. Pits at Savannah River, on the other hand, would get just over $307 million, a 25% cut year over year and about 30% below the request. The NNSA has started construction on some supporting infrastructure upgrades for PF-4, but hasn’t expanded the Plutonium Facility itself. The Savannah River plant is still in the design phase.

Most of the gap between the House bill and the NNSA request is for upgrading and building nuclear-weapons production infrastructure. The difference between the agency’s ask for its infrastructure and operations account and the subcommittee’s recommendation was about $1 billion. Pits alone would get $600 million less than requested, but still almost $300 million more than in 2020. 

While the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to produce any of the 12 annual spending bills for which it is responsible, the upper chamber typically waits until the House has passed spending bills before beginning debate on its own budget proposals. Besides the bundle of bills set for a vote today, the House passed a separate four-bill minibus last week.

This year, Senate appropriators have the added hurdle of taking the lead on another COVID-19 relief package, which flopped out of the gate this week when President Trump called the $1-trillion HEALS Act “semi-irrelevant.” That leaves the Senate Appropriations Committee potentially responsible for more COVID-19 work. Meanwhile, the House had at deadline finished 10 of the 12 yearly appropriations bills.

With Congress’ August recess looming, and elections after that for some Republican senators running on President Trump’s coattails, GOP leadership tried, and for now failed, to get control of the election-year aid bill by securing White House buy-in early and presenting Democrats with a bill that could be painted as the only one the president would sign.