WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats failed to block funding for nuclear weapons research Tuesday that they said could trigger a new arms race and increase the likelihood of cataclysmic war.
Republicans said the money was needed to examine how the nuclear arsenal could be adapted to protect Americans from threats in the post-Cold War era, such as terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. They stressed the money would be used only for research and not to build new bombs.
"The idea of being able to use a redesigned nuclear weapon to keep a terrorist from hitting us with a nuclear weapon is something we've got to come to grips with because it's part of the war on terrorism," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The funding was part of a $27.3 billion spending bill for the Energy Department and for water projects that the Senate approved 92-0.
An amendment by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to cut the $68.6 million for the weapons research was defeated 53-41 in a mostly party-line vote.
The vote puts the Senate at odds with the House, which cut most of the money for the nuclear weapons programs in its version of the energy bill. The two versions will have to be reconciled by House-Senate negotiators.
Tuesday's vote was the second defeat in four months for Senate Democrats on nuclear weapons. In May, the Senate voted to lift a 10-year-old ban on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. It also defeated a Democratic attempt to block continued research on the bunker-busting Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.
The energy bill would provide $15 million for the penetrator research and $6 million to begin research on low-yield nuclear weapons. The so-called "mininukes" would have an explosive effect smaller than five kilotons, about a third the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Advocates of the low-yield weapons say they could limit the number of civilian deaths if nuclear weapons were used. Opponents say they would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons and increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons might be used.
Democrats said the research would undermine U.S. efforts to stop the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons.
"Does anyone believe that if the United States goes down this path that other nations will not follow?" Feinstein said at a news conference.
Feinstein and Kennedy's amendment have would also blocked $22.8 million for environmental studies for a manufacturing plant to make plutonium triggers for the existing nuclear arsenal and $24.8 million to reduce the time necessary to resume underground nuclear bomb testing to 18 months from the current 36 months.
The House bill includes $10.8 million for the plant, $5 million for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and eliminates money intended for the low-yield research and for speeding up bomb-testing preparations.