Senate Backs New Research on A-Bombs



Published: June 16, 2004


WASHINGTON, June 15 - The Senate renewed its support Tuesday for research into a new generation of nuclear weapons, overcoming opposition from Democrats who said they feared that the Bush administration had already decided to develop such arms.


In its consideration of a $447 billion Pentagon spending measure, the Senate defeated, 55 to 42, a Democratic proposal to eliminate $27.6 million for a study of a nuclear weapon capable of penetrating underground bunkers and $9 million to explore other nuclear concepts, including smaller bombs known as mini-nukes.


In a vote on another provision of the bill, the Senate agreed, 65 to 33, to add to the definition of federal hate crimes those committed because of the victim's "sexual orientation, gender or disability."


That vote set up a showdown with the House, whose own version of the bill includes no such change in the definition, which now applies to race, color, religion and national origin.


As for the research on new nuclear weapons, Republicans said that not to proceed with it would be irresponsible, given a changing nature of threats to the United States.


"Irrational rogue nations and nonstate actors have emerged as a greater threat to us," said Senator Wayne Allard, Republican of Colorado.


But Democrats, who lost a similar battle last year, said that the research would spur other nations to turn to such weapons and that even bombs exploding underground would pose risks of fallout far beyond their targets. That the administration has budgeted $485 million over five years for the so-called bunker buster is evidence that the Pentagon already intends to move beyond research, said the opponents, led by Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California.


Backers of the administration denied that a decision to produce the weapons had already been made, saying money was included in projections of future budgets only in case Congress gave approval.


"This is a feasibility study; it is nothing more than that," said Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma.


The House version of the legislation also provides for the research, but a House Appropriations subcommittee on nuclear issues, considering a related measure, decided last week to eliminate all money for it. (The same House panel reduced spending for the program last year, though much of the money cut was restored in later negotiations.)


Taken together, the votes in the Senate and the House have made clear that Congress will be battling over this issue throughout the summer.


The hate crimes proposal was pushed by Mr. Kennedy and Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon. Mr. Smith called the change in the definition "long overdue" and said it was relevant to the Pentagon legislation because of violent crimes that have been committed against gay members of the armed forces.


"You cannot fight terror abroad and accept terror at home," he said.


Similar measures have been passed by the Senate before but have been stripped from final bills. This time, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Smith said, they believe that the strong show of support in the vote will give them leverage in talks with the House. They also have assurances from the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, that he will back the language in those negotiations on the overall bill.


Some Senate Republicans criticized the proposal, saying that it would require the authorities to try to ascertain the psychological motive for a crime and that there was no evidence that offenses against the specified groups were not being prosecuted now.


"I think it is a reach both in terms of need and in terms of the danger of criminalizing thought processes rather than actions," said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama.