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East front of the U.S. Capitol June 8, 2018. Photo by Humberto Sanchez

The House Appropriations Committee finished work on 12 annual spending bills last week including a measure funding the Department of Energy that barred the use of funds to restart nuclear testing and to send plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina.

The committee’s action came during a relatively quiet week on Capitol Hill where neither the House nor the Senate took any roll call votes. The Senate was in recess, while the House held hearings and markups with some members participating remotely because of the pandemic.

The House is scheduled to vote on a package of four spending bills next week including legislation that funds the Departments of State, Agriculture, Interior and Veterans Affairs.

The House is also set to consider the annual defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), next week. Nevada’s House Democrats led by Rep. Steven Horsford hope to offer an amendment to the bill that would strike language in the NDAA that would give the Air Force more control over part of the refuge. 

Horsford’s amendment would keep the refuge under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Air Force has been pushing to expand the Nevada Test and Training Range to include about 250,000 additional acres of the wildlife refuge and take primary control over roughly 850,000 acres it currently has access to.

The spending panel’s votes also came as House and Senate leaders are expected to begin talks as soon as next week on another pandemic relief package. Pressure is building on Congress to act with emergency unemployment relief set to expire at the end of the month.

The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) said Wednesday that the unemployment rate had dropped by about 10 percentage points from May to June to 15 percent, which reflected steps the state has taken to reopen the economy. But officials indicated that the rate could creep back up as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have risen significantly since early June and some restrictions — including on bars — have been restored.

DOE

The Department of Energy (DOE) would receive $41 billion for fiscal year 2021, which is $2.3 billion more than the current level and $5.1 billion over what President Donald Trump requested in his fiscal year 2021 budget blueprint. 

Rep. Dina Titus, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump’s possibly restarting nuclear testing, praised passage of the bill, which included legislation she introduced to block funding for new tests.

“Conducting an explosive nuclear weapons test would give Russia and China reason to do the same while needlessly putting Nevadans’ health at risk,” Titus said in a statement after the committee vote.

The issue was triggered by a Washington Post article that reported Trump had discussed the possibility of resuming testing with White House officials as a way to pressure Russia and China to agree to trilateral nuclear arms talks.

Titus appeared before the panel last month to make the case for the inclusion of her measure in the Energy Department’s (DOE) fiscal 2021 budget bill.

A group of House Democrats, including Titus, Horsford and Rep. Susie Lee, wants to add a similar prohibition as an amendment to the NDAA. Titus gave testimony to the House Rules Committee Friday urging the panel to allow the amendment to be offered during debate on the floor next week. 

Titus also cheered the inclusion of a provision in the DOE budget bill prohibiting the funds from being used to ship plutonium to the state from South Carolina.

The prohibition follows the announcement late last month by Gov. Steve Sisolak that the state settled its suit with the DOE to prevent any future shipments of South Carolina’s weapons-grade plutonium to the state.

The settlement mirrors an agreement struck by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in April 2019, for the agency to begin removing the plutonium by next year and to fully remove it by 2026.

DOE disclosed in early 2019 as part of a lawsuit filed by the state to prevent any plutonium shipment—after talks with DOE yielded no resolution—that it had already shipped a half metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

DOE’s decision to temporarily store plutonium in Nevada was the result of the agency’s failure to meet a deadline to complete construction on a South Carolina facility to repurpose excess plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. A federal judge had ordered that one metric ton of plutonium be removed from the site by the end of 2019.

House Republican supporters of building a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain on the Appropriations Committee also briefly voiced their regret that the bill did not include funding for the project. 

But they did not offer any amendments to try to change the measure given that the Trump administration has said it wants to seek alternatives to Yucca—namely pursuing a temporary nuclear waste storage program. The DOE budget includes $27.5 million for interim storage. 

Defense and other spending  

Along with the energy spending measure, the House Appropriations Committee approved six other bills last week, including legislation to fund the Departments of Defense (DOD), Transportation (DOT), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS) and Treasury.

The DOD received $694.6 billion under the House bill, which would be a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2020 and $3.7 billion less than the president’s budget request. The measure included $1 million for the Army for the renaming of installations, facilities, roads and streets that bear the name of confederate leaders and officers. 

The DOT would get $107.2 billion under its funding measure, an increase of $21.1 billion over fiscal year 2020 and $19.4 billion more than proposed by the president. 

The committee adopted an amendment by voice vote to require the use of masks on airlines, Amtrak and in large transit agencies. 

The bill also provided the Department of Housing and Urban Development with $50.6 billion for fiscal year 2021, an increase of $1.5 billion over 2020 and $13.3 billion more than requested by Trump.

Programs overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services would get $96.4 billion, a boost of $1.5 billion above the existing level and $11.1 billion above the president’s request. 

The DOJ, DHS and Treasury also received increases over current spending in their respective funding bills.

DOJ would get $33.2 billion, $972.5 million above the fiscal year 2020 enacted level. The measure also included a provision prohibiting funding for law enforcement for crowd control, unless such law enforcement wears clearly visible identification showing their agency affiliation. That language comes as protests against police brutality and systemic racism have been flared up around the country following the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody in May. 

Discretionary funding for DHS would be nearly $51 billion under the House bill. The measure also included a provision that would prevent the agency from obstructing migrant access to legal counsel, including access to prospective pro bono counsel and would require that anyone held in Customs and Border Protection for more than 72 hours receive a know-your-rights presentation.

The Treasury would receive $13.66 billion under the House bill, which also included a provision that would allow participants in the DACA program, which shields people brought to the country illegally as children from deportation, remain eligible for federal employment. 

Miscellany 

The entire delegation wrote a letter, spearheaded by Cortez Masto and dated Tuesday, to Trump requesting that access to federal funding for the Nevada National Guard to fight COVID-19 be extended through the end of the year. Access to federal funding is set to expire on Aug. 21. 

“The current funding for these efforts was approved on April 11, 2020, and an extension is critical to ensuring the safety and health of Nevada citizens as we confront and recover from the pandemic and put our state back to work,” the letter said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has activated about 800 guard members to fight the pandemic and the letter comes as the state is seeing an increase in virus cases. Without federal aid, the state would be responsible for paying the guard, which could mean less pay and fewer benefits.

“If approved, these Guard members would be deployed to support all lines of effort associated with testing (sample collection, laboratory testing, and contact tracing), as well as providing support to local and state government entities in providing logistical support for food and essential services to remote and vulnerable populations in our state” the letter continued. 

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

REP. DINA TITUS

Legislation sponsored:

H.R. 7604 – To direct the Administrator of General Services to ensure that the construction and acquisition of public buildings in the United States adheres to the guiding principles for Federal architecture, and for other purposes.

REP. MARK AMODEI

Legislation sponsored:

H.R. 7576 – To amend the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 to make a technical correction to the water rights settlement for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, and for other purposes.

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