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Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Pay attention; this vote matters

November 26, 2001

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— As a rule, procedural votes in the House of Representatives are about as important to the citizenry as yesterday's tide table. But one scheduled to come up this week could affect the lives of you and millions of other Americans.

The question is whether the Republican leadership of the House will allow a floor vote on an amendment that would increase spending on anti-terrorism programs by $6.5 billion. A key part of the proposal would boost funding for joint U.S.-Russian efforts to keep Russian nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands.

The amendment was rejected by a narrow 34-31 margin in the Appropriations Committee, with two Republicans joining all the Democrats on the losing side. Chairman Bill Young of Florida, who led his fellow Republicans in scuttling it, made it clear that he did not disagree with its substance but felt constrained by President Bush's threat to veto any appropriation larger than the administration had requested.

Still to be decided is whether the Rules Committee, which takes its guidance from the Republican leadership, will allow a floor vote on the amendment or, alternatively, if the House will insist on it.

Here's why it matters to you. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal agencies asked the White House for $127 billion more to recover from that assault and beef up security. The White House Office of Management and Budget cut that back by more than two-thirds.

Most of the extra $6.5 billion proposed by Wisconsin Rep. David Obey and the other Democrats would be spent on security measures here at home. Among other things, their amendment would enable the FBI to modernize by next spring its computer system for tracking suspects, instead of waiting until 2004. It would give the Postal Service funds for detection equipment to prevent anthrax-laden envelopes from going through the mail. It would increase coverage at 64 Canadian-U.S. border points that now are not manned 24 hours a day, and boost port security, where currently only 2 percent of entering cargo containers are searched.

But "the major deficiency" that Obey says his amendment would rectify is the scant $18 million add-on the Bush-imposed ceiling allows for securing Russian nuclear materials from terrorists, who have made repeated efforts to acquire ingredients for atomic weapons. The amendment would add $316 million to the Nunn-Lugar program, which began 10 years ago under the bipartisan sponsorship of then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.

Those who watched NBC's "Meet the Press" Nov. 18 heard National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice say that President Bush has been "very supportive of the Nunn-Lugar program." She said, "The funding was not cut. ... All the way back in the campaign, the president talked about perhaps even increasing funding for programs of this kind." Rice said Bush has asked for as "much money as is actually needed."

Perhaps the usually well-informed security adviser was misinformed, but what she said was wrong.

The administration's budget request cut the Department of Energy part of the Nunn-Lugar program from $872 million to $774 million and the Department of Defense portion by another $40 million. The "materials protection and accounting" program that safeguards and monitors Russian nuclear materials was cut $35 million; the program to subsidize research facilities for jobless Russian nuclear scientists and keep them from working for terrorists, another $10 million.

Nor is it true, as Rice claimed, that no more money could usefully be spent. Veteran professional staff people in Congress and the administration tell me the Russians have never been more receptive to American help in locking up or disposing of these materials. On Sept. 26, the Russians agreed to give U.S. inspectors access to nuclear sites never before opened. The window is open, but money is short.

The program for disposing of plutonium a basic ingredient of nuclear weapons is essentially bankrupt. Some in the Bush administration argue that current disposal methods burning it in nuclear power reactors or storing it in glassified form are too expensive. I cannot judge. But last week, 20 senators wrote Bush "strongly urging" him to give "full and adequate funding" to the plutonium disposal program. Among the signers were 10 Republicans, including the party's senior defense and budget spokesmen, Sens. John Warner and Pete Domenici.

This is a stupid place to try to save money. The House deserves a chance to reverse the error.

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