House lawmakers passed a revised defense spending bill Thursday that included $445 million to provide new Army cyber facilities at Fort Gordon and a one-year funding extension for a Savannah River Site facility that converts weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.
The new $607 billion measure was approved 370-58, all but ensuring that Congress has enough support to defeat a presidential veto, said Rep. Rick Allen, of Augusta. The Senate plans a vote early next week.
President Obama vetoed the original defense policy bill over a larger spending issue. That dispute was resolved, but the measure would still bar Obama from moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. prisons.
The administration is finalizing a plan on closing the prison, which houses 112 detainees, but hasn’t said when it will share it with Congress. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that there was no veto threat but that the president still must review the bill.
“The bill passed with 370 votes. It only takes 293 to override a veto,” Allen said Thursday in a telephone interview. “That should send a strong message to President Obama, who is trying to play political games with our national security, and men and women in uniform.”
The revised bill was reduced by $5 billion, but no local funding was cut and Allen said it was never in jeopardy, especially cyber facilities at Fort Gordon, which he described as “the new frontier in international warfare.”
The bill includes $90 million to expand the National Security Agency’s facility at Fort Gordon to house Army Cyber Command operations by March 2018 and $10.6 million to procure an interim facility for the post’s new Cyber Center of Excellence to store and process classified information.
The legislation also authorizes the U.S. Energy Department to spend $345 million in fiscal year 2016 to “carry out construction and project support activities” at SRS’ mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility.
The Army budget proposal submitted to Obama for fiscal year 2016 spelled out the negative consequences that could occur if there’s no new cyber center to plan, coordinate and defend the nation’s computer networks.
“Failure to consolidate planning and warfighting capability will hamper the ability to analyze, predict, block, isolate and engage in a rapidly expanding and changing threat environment,” the proposal stated.
The spending bill could provide some relief for MOX. The project’s contractor, CB&I Areva, has reported MOX to be about 65 percent complete. However, a group of industry experts assembled by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, known as the Red Team, said in a report this year that local personnel dispute this number “due in part to inadequate specification of construction sequencing and potential significant re-work.”
Project officials declined to elaborate on the referenced “re-work,” but in a hearing last month before the House Armed Services Committee, John MacWilliams, Moniz’s senior advisor, suggested that piping had to be redone.
“This is a very, very complex project and the more difficult work remains to be done,” he said. “That tends to be the instrumentation. The piping is very complicated.”
MacWilliams said the contractor estimated a 2.5 percent rework rate, but that MOX is running about 25 percent at this point. Committee member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., was startled by the rework rate.
“So we get to pay twice as a taxpayer? This is unbelievable,” he said. “This really gets to core competency and viability of the project.”
On the Guantanamo Bay issue, three Republican senators from Kansas, Colorado and South Carolina – states where the administration has explored housing detainees – held a news conference Thursday to make it clear they will fight to prevent moving them to U.S. soil.
Closing the prison was a priority of Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he promised in his first days in office that he would eventually shutter the facility, which he argues is costly and gives extremists a recruiting tool.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who visited the prison two weeks ago, said it is a perfect site because it’s hours away from Havana and is surrounded by mountains, water and desert.
“To consider a domestic location is, in my opinion, the worst decision for America’s national security,” said Scott, whose state is home to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, another prospective site for detainees.
On Wednesday, Earnest hinted the president might use executive authority to close the prison. Obama wants to work with Congress, but “if Congress continues to refuse,” the president will explore all other options, Earnest said.
When asked again Thursday about executive action to shut the prison, Earnest said the administration still believes Congress should remove obstacles it has imposed to closing it. He said that closing the prison makes national security and fiscal sense because spending to hold prisoners there exceeds what the U.S. spends to detain and incarcerate terrorists on U.S. soil.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.