The day he sent the letter, Markey made an impassioned plea on the House floor, saying, "Now is the time to reset our priorities and invest in the people and programs to get America back on track."
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) fired back later that day. The proposed cuts "would gamble with our national security," he argued. "At a time when Russia and China are engaging in significant nuclear modernization programs and North Korea and Iran continue their illegal nuclear weapons programs, what Mr. Markey proposes amounts to unilateral disarmament of the U.S."
Turner is worried about waning support for the programs he oversees as chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. Markey and the co-signers of his letter aren't the only lawmakers Turner should be concerned about.
The House Appropriations Committee cut funding for nuclear warheads and weapons material production by almost 7 percent from the President's request, or $498 million. The corresponding Senate subcommittee cut just a tad less -- $440 million -- from the same programs. Members are increasingly troubled by rising costs, slipping schedules and questionable need for new weapons production plants. "The Committee is concerned about the escalating costs for two new nuclear facilities to handle plutonium and uranium," the Senate report noted.
Turner and nine Republican House colleagues urged the Senate to restore all funding, claiming that money was being diverted from nuclear programs to "water projects." His efforts are unlikely to succeed, but this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a multi-year battle over the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Fiscal crisis, contracting defense spending and a shrinking Russian arsenal -- the main justification for maintaining thousands of U.S. warheads -- are combining to put unprecedented pressure on nuclear budgets.
The battles will be fierce. The two sides cannot even agree on how much the government spends on nuclear weapons. Turner claims that U.S. nuclear programs will cost $212 billion over the next 10 years. Markey estimates $700 billion.
The confusion is understandable. There is no unified, transparent nuclear-weapons budget. Budgets are spread out over multiple accounts. Congress and the president do not actually know how much we spend. Studies by independent experts from the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment and other institutes conclude that the U.S. spends at least $54 billion annually on nuclear weapons and related programs, a total that includes missiles, bombers, submarines, warheads, anti-missile programs, environmental clean-up from nuclear production, and other initiatives.
Adjusted for inflation, those annual budgets total over $600 billion over the next decade. In addition, the Obama administration plans to spend over $100 billion over 10 years on new weapons and warhead production plants, so Markey's estimate is accurate by reliable accounts.