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The fiscal year 2000 defense authorization bill has stalled in conferencecommittee over competing House and Senate plans to restructure the EnergyDepartment and create a new agency within DOE to manage the department's nuclearweapons labs.
The stall in the House-Senate conference committee comes amid significantcontroversy over an offer from the House Armed Services Committee. The offer -proposed jointly by the chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee, Reps.Floyd Spence (R-SC) and Ike Skelton (D-MO) July 26 -- drew a veto threat fromOffice of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew July 29. Deputy DefenseSecretary John Hamre also called Spence and Skelton late last week in an effortto nix the proposal, committee sources say.
The proposal is also facing bipartisan opposition from several senior Houselawmakers concerned with a loss of committee jurisdiction and from environmentalactivists who are worried the proposed agency would not be subject toenvironmental regulation.
At press time, Democratic sources say that Skelton was no longer supporting theSpence measure because of the veto threat.
It was not clear whether Spence and other House lawmakers would continue tostick with the offer. A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee wouldnot comment on the dispute. The spokesman said these were "internal conferencediscussions" and would not comment.
Congressional sources say the legislative dispute, along with a simultaneousspat over committee jurisdiction, have likely delayed the ability of theconference committee to wrap up its work on the FY-00 defense authorization billby the end of July as planned.
At issue is an effort to create a semi-autonomous agency within DOE to improvemanagement at the nuclear facilities, with a special emphasis on reformingsecurity procedures at the facilities. Recently, both the congressional CoxCommission and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board issuedreports detailing serious national security breaches at the labs.
In an effort to prevent future breaches, lawmakers sought to develop plans tochange the way DOE is managed. Several weeks ago the Senate approved a DOErestructuring plan, proposed by Sens. John Kyl (R-AZ) and Pete Domenici (R-NM).
House lawmakers originally approved a bare-bones plan, proposed by Spence, aspart of their FY-00 defense authorization package, H.R. 1401. The offer floatedby Spence and Skelton July 26 was a more detailed version of that originalproposal.
While both proposals would create a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, thedetails of the two blueprints differed significantly, particularly on the issueof how much control the energy secretary would have over the new agency's policydevelopment. Congressional sources say the Senate plan expressly provides thesecretary with authority to make policy in a number of areas and theadministrator of the new agency would handle implementation of any changes.
These sources say the Senate proposal is more environmentally sound because ofan amendment offered by Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that wouldprovide the energy secretary with clear oversight over the new agency'scompliance with environmental, safety and health requirements.
However, the Spence proposal contains provisions that these sources say wouldgut the secretary's ability to make policy for the new agency by handing thatauthority to the agency's administrator, who would carry the rank of undersecretary for nuclear security.
In his July 29 letter, OMB's Lew warned that the Spence proposal wouldjeopardize "the creation of sound counterintelligence, intelligence, andsecurity efforts, and environmental, safety and health compliance activities ofthe new organization."
Sources say the administration is also concerned that both proposals would limitthe secretary's ability to conduct oversight of the new agency.
However, even if Spence agrees to the Senate proposal, he still facesconsiderable opposition from a bipartisan group of senior House lawmakers whoare concerned that reforming DOE in a defense authorization bill would scaleback their committees' jurisdiction over the department.
Leading the opposition are Reps. Thomas Bliley (R-VA) and John Dingell (D-MI),the chairman and ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, as well asReps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Jerry Costello (D-IL) of the House ScienceCommittee.
These lawmakers earlier this month had unsuccessfully sought to sway HouseSpeaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and others to oppose the measure in favor of amore comprehensive approach that would give those two committees jurisdictionover the bill as well.
In their most recent effort, Bliley urged Commerce Committee lawmakers in a July28 letter to oppose the Spence proposal. "We are carefully studying theproposal, but are told that the DOD conference may conclude as early as thisweekend. Obviously, in this time frame, we cannot and should not seek to adopt aproposal that will completely restructure a Cabinet department and/or weakenexisting regulatorySafeguards concerning the environment, safety and health," Bliley wrote.
However, Spence and Skelton reiterated to their Senate counterparts in a letteraccompanying the July 26 proposal that "it is imperative that DOE reorganizationlegislation be worked out in the context of our conference report."
Meanwhile, environmentalists warned Spence and Skelton in a July 28 letter thatthey too are opposed to the House plan. Several groups say in the letter thatoversight of environmental and safety concerns at DOE labs and other facilitiesmust remain the responsibility of DOE's Environmental Management andEnvironment, Safety and Health offices.
According to the letter, "This restructuring represents a return to theinstitutional conditions that resulted in almost 50 years of environmental,safety and health mismanagement at DOE facilities and -- at an estimated costof $250 billion -- the largest environmental cleanup in the world."
But the letter also targets the Senate restructuring proposal, claiming thatboth plans may result in the "unintended consequence" of disrupting anddiverting funds from DOE's cleanup program.
House Democrats acknowledge Armed Services staff have already made some targetedchanges to the environmental provisions of the bill, moves they characterize as"a step forward." For instance, the new proposal preserves the energysecretary's authority to promulgate regulations for environment, safety andhealth, whereas the provision as reported by the House would have left that tothe discretion of the chief ofthe new "security administration."
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