Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s new pointman on arms control, warned Thursday that if Congress slows down the ongoing U.S. nuclear modernization plan, it would undercut arms control negotiations with Russia and China.

“Congress has strongly supported the modernization of our deterrent,” Billingslea, the State Department’s new special presidential envoy for arms control, said Thursday in a webcast hosted by the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.

“Certainly, now is not the time to change course. And I need to be very clear about this: the risk of any cuts to the bipartisan consensus on modernization, and the plans we have that are under way, in the midst of a negotiation is to inadvertently, or otherwise, hand the initiative to either Beijing or Moscow or both.”

Billingslea delivered his message not to rock the boat on modernization at a time when he and Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian foreign minister, have agreed to meet for in-person arms-control talks, once the COVID-19 pandemic relents — and also at a time when Democrats who control the House of Representatives, and who last year proved willing to slow down the modernization of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, are writing the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

The Trump administration is keen on creating a new trilateral arms control agreement among the U.S., Russia and China to replace the expiring New START treaty between Washington and Moscow. New START, ratified during the Obama administration, limits each side to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The treaty also allows each side to perform limited compliance inspections of the other side’s arsenal. New START will expire Feb. 5, unless the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to extend it for five years.

House Democrats last year proposed to slash funding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles, likely to be built by Northrop Grumman [NOC], that are slated to replace the silo-based, Boeing [BA]-built Minuteman III missiles on alert today. Those same lawmakers also proposed providing less funding than the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) requested to start building a pair of plutonium pit factories in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Aiken, S.C. 

The GOP-controlled Senate easily quashed that effort in conference, giving the NNSA an all-clear to start rebuilding infrastructure crucial to the production of nuclear-weapon cores. The first new cores will be for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent’s W87-1 warheads.

This year, as the House Armed Services Committee is working on its version of the annual National Defense Appropriations Act progressive lawmakers within the House Democratic caucus are urging House leadership not to increase military and defense spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the NNSA now says that its previous cost estimates for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure abandoned or neglected after the end of the Cold War was off by billions, and that the agency needs a roughly $20 billion budget for fiscal year 2021: almost $3 billion more than it predicted, in 2019, it would need for the coming fiscal year.

On Thursday, Billingslea declined to say whether he would recommend that Trump extend New START.

“I’m just not going to speculate on that at this early stage,” Billignslea said.