White House faces Democratic Senate revolt over nuclear security cuts

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Twenty-six members of the Senate are calling on the Obama administration to increase planned spending on programs to secure or reduce global stocks of nuclear weapons materials in the upcoming 2016 White House budget, even as they are challenging an administration decision to significantly shrink these programs in 2015.

Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon were joined by 20 other Democrats, as well as two Republicans and two independents, in signing a three page letter August 13 requesting more spending for nuclear materials security programs in future budgets to White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.

“The recent spate of terrorism in Iraq, Pakistan, and Kenya is a harrowing reminder of the importance of ensuring that terrorist groups and rogue states cannot get their hands on the world's most dangerous weapons and materials,” the senators wrote.

Obama called for a worldwide effort to lock up all nuclear explosive materials in a landmark speech in Prague in 2009, calling them “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” But the president’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget cut nonproliferation programs in the Department of Energy by nearly $400 million. In their letter, the senators praised Obama‘s leadership on securing and eliminating nuclear materials but said his current budget marked a “major retreat” on the issue.

“Reducing budgets for agencies and programs that help keep nuclear and radiological materials out of the hands of terrorists is out of sync with the high priority that President has rightly placed on nuclear and radiological material security and signals a major retreat in the effort to lock down these materials at an accelerated rate,” the senators wrote.

The 2015 Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water bill increased spending on several nonproliferation programs, including the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, by $219 million more than the president’s budget proposal. Feinstein is chairwoman of the Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee.

The senators called on the Obama administration to build on the proposed increased funding levels in its fiscal 2016 budget. The Democrats were joined by Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.

The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.