WASHINGTON — The Obama administration insisted on Thursday that it is modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal in the face of withering criticism from Republicans that it is moving slowly in anticipation of President Barack Obama's push for further reductions.
Officials from the Energy, Defense and State departments provided the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with an update on the implementation of the U.S.-Russian pact, commonly known as the New START treaty, reducing both sides' nuclear warhead limit to 1,550.
The Senate ratified the treaty in December 2010 after weeks of contentious debate and assurances from Obama that he would provide robust funding to modernize the remaining nuclear weapons. Republicans said that 1 1/2 years later they see little evidence of any commitment.
"It seems like things are being slow-walked," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "And I almost wonder whether as the president is announcing further reductions, the reason that much of the modernization is being slow-walked is that there's no intention to follow through, and they actually hope to come up with more reductions so that much of the modernization that we're talking about does not have to take place."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., alluded to Obama's comments in March when an open microphone caught him telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more room to negotiate after the November election.
"I really need to understand the president's remarks to Dmitry Medvedev a few months ago when behind his hand when he thought the mike was off he said, `Let us get this election behind us and I'll be more flexible.' I understood that statement to be in reference to missile defense, but I don't totally know," Isakson said. "But we cannot afford to be in the business we are in on this committee or as a country and be counting on one representation for meeting commitments while on the other hand we're seeing a wink and a nod to the other side."
Thomas D'Agostino of the Energy Department told the panel that the administration is making significant investments, working to improve 80 percent of the stockpile. He also said they are focused on infrastructure.
"It's about spending the dollars wisely and doing it in a way that we can ensure that the taxpayers are getting what they need and we continue to support the stockpile and get that done," D'Agostino told the panel.
In its 2012 budget, the administration requested $7.6 billion for the 10-year modernization plan, an amount welcomed by Republicans. But GOP lawmakers said the administration did little to make its case for the request, didn't resist when Congress cut the amount and now are content with the lower amounts as a threshold. The final spending bill for 2012 provided $7.2 billion.
An updated report to the annual defense bill recommended $7.9 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The administration requested $7.6 billion.
"They put no effort whatsoever into trying to make that happen. None. Zero," Corker said in an interview.
The administration officials rejected the criticism and dismissed suggestions that the open-mike conversation involving Obama and Medvedev amounted to a secret deal to undermine missile defense.
Rose Gottemoeller of the State Department said the treaty will leave the United States and Russia with the lowest number of deployed nuclear warheads since the 1950s, the first full decade of the nuclear age. She said it has led to 25 short-notice inspections of missiles, bomber bases, facilities and test ranges.