The Senate Armed Services Committee is initiating a public exchange of letters with senior Trump administration officials regarding the Department of Energy’s fiscal 2021 nuclear-weapon budget request.

It is one of the committee’s so-called “paper hearings,” invented to prevent public gatherings during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This session, which includes leadership from DoE and the Pentagon, is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

The panel will at that time post opening statements from its leadership and witnesses online. At the same time, it will transmit written questions from its members to the witnesses, which the witnesses will have at least a week to answer. The committee plans to publish the questions and answers only once the questions are answered.

Scheduled witnesses are:

  • Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette
  • Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)
  • Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment
  • Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command

The NNSA, which manages the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs, requested nearly $20 billion for fiscal 2021. That would be about a 25% increase from the 2020 appropriation of more than $16.5 billion for the agency.

It is also far in excess of the budget increase the NNSA thought, only a year ago, that it would need for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Brouillette favored a lower number, $17.5 billion, according to reports, but Gordon-Hagerty favored the higher number.

Congressional nuclear hawks who got a hold of an official-use-only memo from Gordon-Hagerty agreed that the agency was due for a raise, and successfully encouraged President Trump to request the larger number.

Seante Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was among the lawmakers pressing for the big NNSA budget number, for which the Pentagon will foot the bill. Giving the NNSA a $3 billion year-over-year raise will cost the Navy one Virginia-class attack submarine in 2021. The service wanted to build two.

The congressional Armed Services committees write the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy and spending limits for defense programs, including those at the NNSA. The House Armed Services Committee ordinarily marks up its version of the annual blockbuster bill in an open session. The Senate usually marks up in closed session.

The House last week said it would not mark up its bill until May, but that the legislative text would be ready for debate by May 1. The House wanted to hold its markup April 30, before the pandemic hit.