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Legislation was passed in the nick of time so the United States would not default on its obligations.
But at what cost? And how will the national labs, including the one at Los Alamos, be affected?
Most assuredly, the people at the National Nuclear Security Administration are now wondering, what is next?
The answer is … nobody really knows.
The compromise deal to persuade GOP lawmakers to raise the federal debt limit will cut federal spending by $2.1 trillion or more over the next decade. The bill allows a quick $900 billion increase in borrowing authority as well as a first installment on spending cuts amounting to $917 billion over a decade.
But what about the other $1.4 trillion in cuts?
The bill sets up a 12-member committee of lawmakers with authority to recommend fresh deficit cuts from every corner of the federal budget.
“Nothing is spared when making cuts as big as these,” said spokeswoman Jude McCartin, who works for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). “It is hard to imagine that any agency is going to escape unscathed.”
McCartin, though, said that when the “super committee” is formed, there seems to be a consensus that “they will come to an agreement that will not make dangerous cuts to the labs.”
NNSA spokesperson Damien LaVera said his office would not make any comments regarding the debt ceiling vote or the possibility of cuts at this time.
Kingston Reif, the director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Council for a Livable World in Washington, said there is still a lot of uncertainty about how big the cuts to security spending would be and how it would be allocated.
“That said, given NNSA’s history of poor management, ill-defined programmatic goals, and cost overruns, Congress is likely going to take a close look at its programs,” Reif said in an interview with the Los Alamos Monitor. “Given tight budget environments in FY2011 and FY2012, the House cut over $300 million from the weapons activities in HR 1 (which was ultimately restored) and has proposed to cut nearly $500 million from the FY 2012 request this year. Even with a $500 million cut in FY2012 NNSA would still have more than enough money to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile. None of NNSA’s essential programs would be harmed.”
But what about the CMRR project at Los Alamos?
Reif said the NNSA has some tough choices to make.
“Looking out in the long-term, NNSA’s budgets requests will near $9 billion by the middle of the decade,” Reif said. “Given likely budgets cuts to defense and other discretionary programs during this period.
“I think it’s unlikely that such large increases can be sustained. This could present NNSA with some difficult choices about which programs to fund and which programs to delay or cancel.
“For example, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States stated in its 2009 final report that if funding couldn’t be found, the CMRR should be built before the Uranium Processing Facility proposed for Oak Ridge, Tenn., instead of concurrently with it.”
Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) voted for the bill but has concerns about New Mexico’s labs.
“It’s going to take a fight just like last year when they proposed cutting the labs and we fought back and we were able to restore that funding,” Heinrich told KOB-TV in Albuquerque.
“We’re going to have to do that again and again to make sure the Republican leadership doesn’t cut the labs.”
The pressure, meanwhile, is squarely on the “super committee,” which will be made up of six Democrat and six Republican lawmakers.
What happens if the committee deadlocks?
Failure to make a decision would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, which could affect the Pentagon as well as national security.
The cuts wouldn’t hit until January 2013, but their potential impact scares many.
“The answer’s pretty obvious. Hanging over the head of the joint committee is this trigger that is pretty drastic,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told the Associated Press.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group might have summed it up best.
“Basically, the impact of the cuts are yet to be determined,” Mello said. “Clearly, there will be very painful cuts in discretionary spending that could fall into the security category. This legislation sets up a big battle this fall between guns and butter.”