Sen. Bob Corker has been threatening to vote against the New START treaty unless he gets massive additional funding for a nuclear facility in Tennessee. What makes this so absurd is not only that the Administration has already committed itself to building the facility, but that Corker’s demands for more funding appear to have been pulled from thin air.
Ambassador Linton Brooks who served as the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration — the agency responsible for maintaining the US nuclear arsenal — called out Corker in his home state last week. When Brooks was asked to respond to Corker’s assertion that the new facility would cost a total of $4-5 billion, not the $1.4 — 3.5 billion that has been projected, he noted:
I don’t think we know that… We have no idea where that (dollar estimate) is coming from.
It increasingly looks as though Corker has simply made up a larger figure for the facility, which has no basis in reality. In fact, the reason why there is a cost range between $1.4 and 3.5 billion dollars is because the facility is not fully designed yet. Nevertheless, Corker, due to some new found expertise in the design of nuclear facilities, has determined that that range, which was determined by the National Nuclear Security Administration led by a Bush administration hold-over, is wrong. One would also assume, that a so-called conservative who claims to be concerned about wasteful government spending, would at the very least wait until a facility is fully designed before jumping to baseless conclusions that it needs billions more in additional funding.
But Corker may be motivated by more than just stimulus pork for his home state. Corker is making a demand that the Administration is practically incapable of delivering, since it both can’t pledge more funds to a facility that isn’t fully designed yet and it can’t control how congress allocates funding. Last week, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher confirmed that the Administration wasn’t going to be able to cut a back room deal with Corker:
We’ve shown our hand, we’ve proposed our budget, it’s a 13 percent increase… Any question about the commitment to modernization is just not a question.
Tauscher also noted that the GOP concerns about funding the nuclear weapons complex have suddenly came out of nowhere. She noted that:
I was pretty lonely fighting for money for the NNSA and for the weapons complex before I left Congress for the administration.
Much like the financial regulatory reform bill – where Corker, after positioning himself as a proponent, flipped and turned against the bill – Corker could be playing a similar double game on START. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has already expressed the goal to delay the vote until next year and Corker could essentially be doing his bidding. Corker’s stance START has taken on a familiar GOP pattern – appear reasonable and willing to vote for the treaty, string along negotiations with the White House, and then make an entirely unreasonable request that blows up the negotiations. The vote in the Senate Foreign Relations committee was already pushed back from August in large part to appease Corker. In the intervening six weeks nothing has seemingly changed. Therefore on Thursday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes on the treaty we will finally find out if Corker was playing a double game all along.