Without objection: Lab-friendly bill advances

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a session devoted more to expressions of esteem, the Senate appropriations committee made quick work Thursday of an energy and water appropriation proposal.

The measure containing next year’s spending plans for the national laboratories, including Los Alamos, was passed “without objection,” and sailed forth to the full Senate unchanged from the version approved by a subcommittee on Tuesday.

In numerous comments, committee members honored the occasion of Sen. Pete Domenici’s last markup of the bill as a senator. The New Mexico Republican will retire at the end of his term early next year.

“There goes a man,” said Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. “Whence cometh another?”

Known for his Shakespearian rhetoric, Byrd also made a pun on Mixed Oxide, or MOX nuclear fuel, which is a means of disposing surplus weapons-grade plutonium that has been championed by Domenici.

“Senator,” Byrd said, “I have long admired your moxie.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the subcommittee that authored the spending bill, also contributed an encomium of his own. (An encomium is a speech of praise, a word derived from the classical Greek encomion.)

“It’s difficult to get the last word with Senator Domenici, not because he talks so much, but because he knows so much,” Dorgan said.

With family and staff looking on in the audience and in the warm glow of his colleague’s regard, Domenici offered a review of his years of service.

“I have witnessed tremendous change on this subcommittee since I joined and I am extraordinarily proud of the work performed by the Department of Energy, including the three national security labs, the dozen Office of Science laboratories, and three energy laboratories,” Domenici said, in a prepared text made available by his office.

“I’m especially grateful for the opportunity this subcommittee has given me to work with some of the best scientific minds in the world,” he said, at one point calling Los Alamos National Laboratory, “one of the greatest lab’s in mankind’s history.”

Domenici has played an important role in the Senate appropriation committee for a quarter of a century. Since 1995, he has been either the chairman or ranking member of the energy and water subcommittee that provides funding recommendations for the nuclear weapons laboratories, two of which are in his home state.

Although he noted that he voted against the nuclear test moratorium, he also observed that, “This committee has administered it.”

He continued, “The underground testing moratorium led us to the science-based stockpile stewardship program, which has in turn led to great strides in American supercomputing capabilities and some great new science facilities at each of the NASA labs.”

Dorgan presented an outline of the spending bill, noting once again that the total for the energy and water programs was $1.9 billion over the president’s request.

Among the increases, he identified $672 million added for energy efficiency and renewables, $632 million added to DOE’s Office of Science, and $559 million extra for the Corps of Engineers, which is currently looking at a $67 billion backlog, he said

Although the nuclear weapons budget was reduced by $94 million from the administration request, he said, it was $227 million more than last year.

The Senate bill fully funds the president’s request for the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility of $19.6 million (zeroed by the House), and steps up funding for the Los Alamos Neutron Scattering Center refurbishment, adding $30 million to the President’s request.

The Senate bill bestows $7 million on the lab’s future signature initiative, known as MaRIE (Matter-Radiation Interactions in Extremes), and boosts funding for the lab’s fastest-in-the-world Roadrunner Supercomputer by $26 million.

One $10 million item, for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was cut completely in the House version of the appropriations bill and also in the current Senate plan. The decision probably ends the initiative in the near term, although Domenici has said he will fight for it on the Senate floor.

On the matter of funding for LANL’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and funding for the laboratory’s pit manufacturing program, the House and Senate remain deeply divided, threatening a showdown in conference if the bills get that far.

“The House has run rampant,” Domenici said, as he foresaw some difficult times ahead from his perspective for nuclear deterrence.

Many observers continue to predict that government funding will be by Continuing Resolution, while the larger political picture awaits to be sorted out in the fall elections.