Ploughshares Fund and its partners won a huge victory on July 12 when the House of Representatives voted to halt deployment of President Trump’s new, more usable, “low-yield” nuclear weapon—the first House vote to stop a new nuclear weapon in over a decade. With 95 percent of Democrats voting as a united front, this sends a powerful message to candidates for the White House in 2020—your base does not want new nukes.
This was a tremendous victory against a determined Trump administration and Republican House caucus. The administration had proposed this new weapon as part of the February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, with full support of the Pentagon and then Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The GOP-controlled Congress approved the warhead last year, and it was on a fast track for deployment in 2020.
But the July vote put the brakes on these ill-conceived plans, a success that would not have been possible before the 2018 elections that brought the Democrats to power in the House. That gave one of our key allies, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash), a powerful new perch as the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. "It makes no sense for us to build low-yield nuclear weapons," Smith said at the Ploughshares policy conference in November. "It brings us no advantage and it is dangerously escalating. It just begins a new nuclear arms race with people just building nuclear weapons all across the board in a way that I think places us at greater danger."
But even before the election, Ploughshares Fund and our allies were building opposition to the low-yield weapon. For example, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and I teamed up last spring to write an op-ed that found “no need for such weapons, and building them would make us less safe. These so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons are a gateway to a nuclear catastrophe.”
Ploughshares Fund then worked with the Union of Concerned Scientists to produce a letter to Congress opposing the new weapon. The letter, signed by more than 30 experts (including Bill Perry, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Gov. Jerry Brown, former chairman of Strategic Command Gen. James Cartwright, former Sen. Richard Lugar, and Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and Ploughshares Board Member), was delivered to all Members of Congress.
We also worked with other key allies, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), to support stand-alone legislation to prohibit the new warhead. In September 2018, Reps. Lieu, Smith, Sen. Markey and others introduced the Hold the LYNE (Low-Yield Nuclear Explosive) Act, which became an effective focus of opposition to the program.
We followed up the letter and legislation with face-to-face meetings with key Members. In January, Ploughshares teamed up with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to bring Bill Perry and Jerry Brown to Washington DC for meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and others.
As the voting neared, Ploughshares Fund brought together the best advocates in our community to focus our efforts. Erica Fein at Win Without War and Stephen Young at Union of Concerned Scientists led weekly calls to coordinate meetings with Members on the Hill and to count votes. We knew it would be close, and that every vote mattered. Many of our partners pitched in, including Council for a Livable World, Global Zero, Beyond the Bomb, Women’s Action for New Directions, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Arms Control Association, and others.
With discipline and drive, we won major votes on the House Appropriations Committee, the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, and finally on the House floor. We beat back multiple efforts by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) to allow the warhead to be fielded. We had the arguments on our side, friends in the right places, and the political power to succeed.
But the fight is not over. The Senate Defense bill includes full funding for this dangerous weapon. Now we go to conference, where the two bills need to be brought into agreement. As ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed will play a key role here. And, if we make it that far, the bill still needs to be signed by President Trump, who should be reluctant to veto a Defense bill that gives him most of what he wants. Stay tuned.
Regardless of what happens next, House Democrats have made it crystal clear how they feel about Trump and new nuclear weapons. Presidential candidates for 2020, are you listening?
For A Deep Dive on the National Defense Authorization Bill read this transcript of an Early Warning segment from our podcast Press the Button. Then listen and subscribe to the podcast!
Photo: US Capitol. Flickr / ThatMakesThree (cc)