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Nuclear funding request cut

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate bargainers agreed yesterday to halve President Bush's request for developing "bunker buster" nuclear warheads and make other cuts in research into a new generation of nuclear weapons.

The negotiators also decided to provide nearly all of what Bush wanted to continue preparatory work on a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.

The money was included in a compromise $27.3 billion measure financing energy and water projects for the government's new budget year. Lawmakers hoped to push it through Congress in the next few days.

Legislators are struggling to meet a self-imposed Nov. 21 deadline to adjourn Congress for the year. So far, they have approved only four of the 13 spending bills that must be passed this year, though the House is prepared to vote on the fifth, a $9.3 billion measure for military construction.

Bargainers on the energy and water bill decided to provide $7.5 million for the bunker busters, which would burrow through earth and rock to destroy underground targets. The administration wanted twice that amount.

The bill would provide all $6 million Bush proposed for research into "mini-nukes" of less than 5 kilotons. But $4 million of that would be provided only after the administration submits a report on the status of the country's nuclear weapons stockpile.

The lawmakers agreed to provide enough money to shorten the current three-year lead time needed to resume underground testing of nuclear weapons to two years, not the 18 months the administration requested.

They also accepted only $11 million of the $23 million that the Energy Department wanted for preliminary studies for a plant to make plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. The department says the triggers are needed for the country's aging arsenal.

The House version of the bill had made even deeper cuts in the nuclear weapons work, while the Senate had agreed to give all the administration had requested.

Representative David Hobson, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee that wrote the bill, called the decision a compromise. But opponents of nuclear testing complained that the final version went too far.

"I have the most profound objection to this reopening of the nuclear door," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.

The measure also provided $580 million for this year's work at Yucca Mountain, an underground site envisioned as the ultimate home for 77,000 tons of used reactor fuel and other highly radioactive waste now accumulating around the country. Its cost is expected to exceed $50 billion.

Bush had requested $591 million for this year. Though Bush and Congress decided last year to proceed with the project, Nevada lawmakers are still trying to kill it.

"Yucca Mountain will never come to be," predicted Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and one of the bargainers, citing problems in transporting waste to the site.

One of the last disputes that delayed the military construction bill was resolved when bargainers agreed to split earmarks -- money directed to home-district projects -- at 53 percent for the Senate and 47 percent for the House.

Controlling the House, Senate, and White House for a full year for the first time since 1954, the GOP had hoped to efficiently churn out all 13 annual spending bills by Oct. 1. That is when the government's 2004 budget year began.

But five weeks into the new fiscal year, fights over overtime pay for workers, media ownership, school vouchers, and other issues have tripped up Republicans hoping to demonstrate efficiency.

They are also trying to find about $3.6 billion more for updated voting equipment, AIDS assistance abroad, veterans' health care, and education.

The eight unfinished bills cover the budgets of 11 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of other agencies.

To keep them functioning, Congress planned to pass a bill this week temporarily financing those agencies through Nov. 21. It would be the third such bill passed this year. The Senate also debated an initial version of a $17 billion agriculture bill. In one vote, senators rejected a bid by Feinstein to tighten federal controls over energy trading and energy markets.

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