By Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire

Key congressional Republicans on Tuesday suggested that President Obama’s potential reelection could undermine the United States’ ability to deter enemy attacks, even as a GOP-controlled House Appropriations panel approved legislation on Wednesday that largely endorses the president’s plan for nuclear weapons spending (see GSN, Feb. 28).

Under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 proposal, the National Nuclear Security Administration is requesting $7.6 billion for programs “to maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.” The figure is a 5 percent increase from funding Congress provided for the current fiscal year, but $372 million less than what the administration projected in 2010.

The 2010 projections were aimed at supporting Obama’s pledge to provide $85 billion over a decade for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. Obama made the pledge during the successful push for ratification of the New START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who was a key player in the 2010 New START negotiations but ultimately voted against the accord, said on Tuesday the fiscal 2013 budget requests demonstrates that the “gap between what was promised and what was delivered continues to grow.”

Kyl said he was skeptical of assurances from administration and military officials that the proposed cuts to projected spending would create a “manageable risk” so long as they do not continue beyond fiscal 2013. Spending shortfalls have been defended similarly in past years, he argued during a breakfast talk at the Capitol Hill Club.

“When do you cross the line between manageable risk and peril when each year we’re told we’re at the end of the line?” Kyl asked. “What happens if President Obama is reelected and is no longer answerable for another election to the American people—what’s likely to happen to these programs at that time?”

Kyl’s criticism is echoed by other key Republicans, including House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner of Ohio. Nonetheless, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee approved a bill on Wednesday that largely adopts Obama’s fiscal 2012 plan for nuclear-weapons-complex funding.

The bill meets the president’s request for $7.6 billion for such activities, although the full House Appropriations Committee is expected to recommend changes to funding priorities within that spending level when it takes up the legislation next week.

During the panel’s markup of the bill Wednesday, subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said such recommended changes would include increased funding for “some priority programs, like the W-76 [nuclear warhead] life extension program,” for which the administration has requested $80 million less than it had anticipated last year (see GSN, March 29). The committee declined to release additional details.

In a Tuesday statement, Frelinghuysen called the House budget measure “a fair bill that recognizes our highest responsibilities—the defense of our country and support for American innovation and competiveness.”

Testifying before Turner’s subcommittee on Tuesday, U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler defended the administration’s budget. Kehler described himself as being “comfortable” and “confident” that the country’s nuclear deterrent would remain “safe, secure and effective” despite the proposed fiscal 2013 cutback from anticipated funding levels.

Kehler said his “biggest concern is what happens beyond 2013,” primarily because military leaders “don’t see the plan yet” from the administration regarding how program funding will be handled beyond that point.

Madelyn Creedon, assistant Defense secretary for global strategic affairs, testified that the administration is preparing a report to Congress pursuant to Condition 9 of the Senate resolution that backed the New START treaty. Under the clause, the administration is required to submit a report to Congress if “appropriations are enacted that fail to meet the resource requirements set forth in the president’s 10-year plan.”

Such a report is intended to address “how the president proposes to remedy the resource shortfall,” “the impact of the resource shortfall on the safety, reliability, and performance of the United States nuclear forces” and “whether and why, in the changed circumstances brought about by the resource shortfall, it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a party to the New START treaty,” according to the resolution.

Creedon said the Defense Department is reviewing the report and “hopes to have it finished very soon.”

Turner charged during the hearing that Obama’s 10-year nuclear complex plan “appears to be abandoned” and stressed that New START is only a U.S. interest if the nation completes arsenal modernization. He complained that Congress has yet to see the report mandated by Condition 9 of the Senate resolution.

Turner in March introduced legislation that would specifically link U.S. arsenal cuts to the fulfillment of Obama’s modernization pledge (see GSN, March 9).

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, countered that the deficit-battling Budget Control Act that Congress approved last year was responsible for “really forcing some difficult decisions” on the budget.

As part of its budget plan, the Obama administration is proposing to delay certain weapons modernization projects. For example, the administration is pushing back by five years plans to construct a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The planned structure is largely intended to replace existing space at the New Mexico site used to analyze and store plutonium for nuclear arms activities (see GSN, March 27).

Another example of the proposed budget’s impact is an anticipated two-year delay in building the first replacement for today’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (see GSN, March 30).

Sanchez, however, suggested that the impact to the U.S. nuclear deterrent might not be as dramatic as Republicans have suggested.

With its existing nuclear weapons arsenal, the United States “still maintains the ability to destroy the world several times over,” Sanchez said.