Fort Gordon, SRS Funds Caught in Obama's Defense Bill Veto

Fort Gordon unit (U.S. Army photo)
Fort Gordon unit (U.S. Army photo)

President Obama vetoed a sweeping defense spending bill Thursday that included $90 million to build a new Army Cyber Command headquarters at Fort Gordon and a one-year funding extension for a Savannah River Site factory that converts weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.

Obama disagrees with the $612 billion bill in part because it would add $38 billion to a separate war account not subject to spending caps.

"This bill instead resorts to gimmicks that do not allow the Pentagon to do what it needs to do," he said.

In an unusual veto ceremony in the Oval Office, Obama said he was sending the bill back to Congress with a simple message: "Let's do this right."

Obama agrees that Pentagon spending should increase, but only if domestic programs are also more robustly funded. Severe federal spending cuts were implemented in 2011 under a so-called sequestration agreement, and Obama is committed to lifting them across the board.

"We're in the midst of budget discussions -- let's have a budget that properly funds our national security as well as economic security," he said.

Obama also dislikes provisions in the bill that would make it harder for him to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Aides to Obama believe lawmakers will side with him and sustain the veto, despite sharp criticism about his approach. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged Thursday that the veto would be sustained.

Republican senators and House lawmakers from Georgia and South Carolina urged Congress to override the veto.

"In a time of fighting and turmoil, protecting our military is essential," Rep. Rick Allen, of Augusta, said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Obama was sending the wrong message to U.S. military personnel.

"He took the well-being of our military and the security of our nation hostage and used it to demand a ransom of more bloated spending for his domestic agenda," McCarthy said.

The bill includes $90 million to expand the National Security Agency's facility at Fort Gordon to house Army cyber operations by March 2018. Also included is $10.6 million for the procurement of an interim facility for the 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, which is nearly 70 percent complete and employs about 1,800 workers.

Fort Gordon declined comment on the veto, but 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.

At the moment, Army cyber facilities are not available at Fort Gordon but are temporarily split among seven different buildings within a 50-mile radius on forts Belvoir and Meade outside Washington, according to the command.

The buildings provide about 71 percent of the command's required space, which limits "staff cohesion" and "consumes considerable time and resources as the staff is forced to travel between locations," the Army's budget proposal stated.

"Now more than ever, we need to make sure our military is funded and authorized at the levels that are necessary to confront the world's challenges," U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a statement.

The veto could further cloud funding for MOX. Three reports this year conflict on whether the project, which is $6 billion over its original budget, is the best option for satisfying a 2000 treaty the U.S. signed with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium.

According to a news release posted online this month, Rosatom, Russia's national nuclear corporation, quoted its CEO as saying MOX construction in the U.S. has been suspended.

"I met with the U.S. minister of energy who admitted that they'd had to put on hold their MOX fuel plant project," Rosatom CEO Sergei Kirienko said in the release.

The Russian embassy confirmed that a MOX launch ceremony was held, while Rosatom and an international communications agency verified the information in the release was correct.

The Department of Energy said that per the direction of Congress, it is continuing MOX construction at SRS, but it does not comment on conversations between Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and foreign officials.

Tribune Washington Bureau reports were used in this article.

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