WASHINGTON — A new fight over America’s nuclear budget has erupted from behind the scenes, as key Republicans in Congress are appealing to President Donald Trump for a significant boost to the agency in charge of the nation’s nuclear warheads.

Though there are often disagreements as presidents vet their budgets on Capitol Hill before finalizing them, it’s rare that those fights become public. This time, some of the president’s allies in Congress are battling the White House’s Office of Management and Budget on behalf of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency inside the Department of Energy.

According to a report from The Dispatch, NNSA sought nearly $20 billion in the Trump administration’s upcoming fiscal 2021 budget request, but OMB cut that figure first to $18.6 billion, and then later to $17.5 billion. That lower figure still represents an increase of $500 million over the agency’s budget authorized for FY20.

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty reportedly pushed back in a Dec. 16 memo, arguing that losing the requested funding, along with projected funds over the next five years amounts to “unilateral disarmament” and would result in cutting “NNSA’s modernization program in half.”

The cut reportedly came from OMB director Russ Vought and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has previously butted heads with pro-defense members. They reportedly argue the lower number is meant to help comply with 2021 budget caps.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has spearheaded a letter to Trump, with a dozen Republican senators, to support the NNSA’s request. Inhofe told reporters Wednesday the money was needed now to remedy underinvestment by the Obama administration.

“In order to get on a route to make it sustainable, on a program, it has to be $20 billion,” he said of the NNSA budget. “Right now they're talking about somewhere around $17 billion.”

Another Trump ally, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, co-signed the Senate letter.

“I think people are acting in good faith on this, that we don't have unlimited money here, and you have to obviously prioritize,” Risch said Wednesday. “But when it comes to nuclear deterrence, it's about as high a priority as it gets. You're talking about existential threats to the country.”

Risch said that because the Obama administration in 2010 pledged to robustly fund nuclear weapons programs in a “horse trade” to win Republican votes to ratify the arms reduction treaty New START, the Trump administration should honor that “longstanding commitment by the second branch of government to the first branch of government.”

“To be fair, that commitment has been met partially, but we need to do more,” Risch said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Obama administration projected weapons stockpile and infrastructure costs for FY11-FY20 at roughly $85 billion, but the funds appropriated for these programs fell below the projected levels early in the decade. Under the Trump administration, the budget requests and projections for subsequent years exceed the amount predicted.

Department of Energy spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said DOE and NNSA will not comment on budget requests that “are not yet final.” The White House plans to roll out its FY21 budget request on Feb. 10.

“Both Secretary Brouillette and Administrator Gordon-Hagerty are deeply committed to our national security mission, including the modernization of the nuclear weapons program as called for under the Nuclear Posture Review,” Hynes said. “As always, DOE will work with OMB to deliver to Congress a budget that keeps America safe and secure.”

It’s unclear how NNSA would seek to use a boost in funding from FY20, but it could potentially try to plug future costs related to the W87-1 warhead program. In December, a top NNSA official told reporters that the W87-1 program may go through design changes, including dropping planned features to defray costs for the B61-12 and W88 Alteration 370 warheads, which have been forced over budget by problems with commercially built parts.

Adding more money in now could perhaps be used to keep those other projects on track.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday while traveling to Florida, Defense Secretary Mark Esper identified the strategic deterrent as the “No. 1 priority” for him going forward, indicating that some of the $5 billion in savings found through a Pentagon-wide review could go toward that mission in the FY21 budget.

To raise NNSA’s budget, the Department of Defense, which in FY20 received a budget exceeded $700 billion, could easily absorb a $2 billion cut, and it should, said Tim Morrison, a former deputy assistant to the president for national security under the Trump administration.

“The president has made clear in various fora his prioritization of nuclear modernization, to do better than his predecessor,” said Morrison, now a Hudson Institute senior fellow. “These kinds of disputes happen, and I think the president will have a decision to make: Does he want to close this 10 percent hole in the DOE budget at the expense of 0.5 percent of the DoD budget?”

Reduced nuclear spending would reduce the president’s leverage in future treaty negotiations with Russia and China, Morrison argued. A cut for warheads, he said, would induce Capitol Hill defense appropriators to seek cuts to related missile systems in DoD’s budget.

“DoD will wind up getting gutted,” he added.

But the Arms Control Association’s director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Kingston Reif, argued that Gordon-Hagerty’s “bonkers” FY21 budget proposal is further evidence that the Trump administration’s upgrade plans for America’s nuclear arsenal is fiscally unsustainable ― “a ticking budget time bomb even at historically high levels of defense spending.”

“Faced with the reality of unsustainable overcommitment, the agency is unfortunately resorting to hyperbolic fear mongering," Reif said. "But it doesn’t have to be this way. Scaling back the plans for new warheads and infrastructure would make the modernization effort easier to execute and reduce the threat to other defense programs while still leaving a devastating deterrent.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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