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U.S. Risks New Arms Race, Democrats Warn

Response is triggered by Senate support of a plan to end a ban on nuclear weapons research.

May 21, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats on Tuesday accused the Bush administration of risking a new arms race as the Senate endorsed a Pentagon plan to end a 10-year ban on research and development of a new generation of tactical nuclear bombs.

The charge drew a sharp denial from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who asserted that the Pentagon only wants to study new weapons that could help the United States destroy caches of chemical and biological weapons or other targets deep underground.

"We're going to be looking at a variety of ways, conceivably, to develop the ability to reach a deeply buried target," he said at a Pentagon news conference. He said low-yield nuclear weapons could be more effective than conventional bombs in strikes against chemical and biological weapons storage areas. But he added: "Many of the things you study, you never pursue."

In an angry, lectern-pounding speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) emerged as a leading opponent of the administration's effort to change the nuclear policy.

"Just a study? Baloney!" Feinstein said. "Does anyone really believe that?"

Democrats streamed to the Senate floor to attack the administration's proposal to remove the ban on research and development of new nuclear weapons with 5 kilotons or less of destructive force. They said the shift would merely encourage other countries to pursue weapons with horrific power. Five kilotons represents a sizable fraction of the estimated force dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

"No Congress should be the Congress that says, 'Let's start down this street,' when it's a one-way street that can lead only to nuclear war," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

In a 51-43 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment that Feinstein proposed to keep intact a ban on research and development of low-yield atomic weapons, which was enacted in 1993 as the U.S. was embarking on a post-Cold War nuclear policy.

Tuesday's debate came as the House and Senate prepared to pass legislation authorizing about $400 billion in defense spending in fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1. Approval is expected sometime this week.

The defense bill, which sets military policy on personnel, weapons procurement and other matters, is seen by Rumsfeld and President Bush as a key vehicle in their ongoing battle to transform the Pentagon. Republicans hope to use this year's bill to give the administration greater management authority over one of the world's biggest government bureaucracies. Once the policy is authorized, a separate bill approves specific expenditures.

The Senate defense bill would give the administration not only new freedom to research and develop low-yield nuclear weapons, but also authority to spend $15 million for research on a larger "bunker-buster" called the "robust nuclear earth penetrator."

In addition, the bill would authorize $6 million for advanced nuclear weapons research and would require the Energy Department to be ready to resume underground nuclear tests within 18 months. Currently, it would take the department two to three years to prepare for testing upon receiving a presidential order. The United States suspended nuclear weapons testing 11 years ago.

In debating the Feinstein amendment, GOP senators defended the administration's plan as a prudent response to a trend in which recent adversaries, and potential future ones, have sought ways to avoid destruction above ground by U.S. air power. "The enemy of tomorrow and today is going underground in a deep fashion," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), "not only to hide their forces but also hide their weaponry."

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) noted that the bill would not authorize testing, acquisition or deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons. Domenici, whose state is home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a central facility in the U.S. nuclear arms complex, said: "Some of our scientists just might come up with a great idea about a low-level bomb that could be good for America."

But Democrats argued that any move to allow research of new tactical nuclear weapons could bring the unthinkable -- the world's first nuclear attack since 1945 -- closer to reality.

"This bill is a declaration that the United States is prepared to launch a nuclear arms race in the world again," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).

Voting for Feinstein's amendment were 41 Democrats, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Three Democrats -- Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Zell Miller of Georgia -- joined 48 Republicans in voting to table, or kill, it.

Today, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) plans to offer a compromise that would allow resumption of research on low-yield nuclear weapons but would otherwise bar their development. Republicans are expected to alter Reed's amendment to the administration's liking. Reed said his plan would resemble a bipartisan approach endorsed by the House Armed Services Committee.


Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.

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