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H.R. 6179 (114th): Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016

The United States is the only country to have used a nuclear weapon in warfare, doing so twice in 1945 against Japan. President Obama has publicly expressed his wish for a worldwide end dismantling of all nuclear weapons, signed the New START Treaty with Russia that decreased both Cold War powers’ nuclear stockpiles, and became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the first nuclear bomb’s impact. In his final months in office, some speculate Obama might also create a “no first use policy.”

A new bill, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, H.R. 6179 andS. 3400, was recently introduced in Congress with the hopes of codifying that proposed change.

What the bill does

Introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA33), the bill would disallow a first-use nuclear strike by the U.S. without an official declaration of war from Congress. Since Congress has not officially declared war since World War II, in 1942, the bill would prevent a nuclear strike so long as Congress continues to authorize military force as peacetime operations. (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were not officially declared, instead considered “extended military engagements” initially authorized by the president.)

The bill is being introduced now, several weeks following a New York Times report that Obama — after initially favoring the “no first use” policy — may now be leaning against it, after Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter advised against. To be clear, under either the bill or Obama’s potential policy announcement, America would still retain a nuclear arsenal and reserve the right to deploy a nuclear weapon, but only in retaliation for a nuclear strike or an attempted one.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the policy makes the world a safer place by decreasing the odds of the U.S. either deliberately or accidentally commencing a nuclear war. They also say that it would help to ameliorate the American posture towards nuclear weapons on the international stage, after being the only country to ever use them.

“Nuclear war poses the gravest risk to human survival. Unfortunately, by maintaining the option of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, U.S. policy increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation,” Senate lead sponsors Markey said in a press release. “The President should not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. This legislation enshrines this simple principle into law.”

Dominic Tierney recently argued in The Atlantic that it may actually project military strength, not weakness. “A no-first-use pledge could potentially reinforce a powerful state’s strategic advantage by discouraging other countries from developing nuclear arsenals, and by dissuading nuclear-armed countries from pushing the button,” Tierney wrote. “This would happen with the assurance that America would not fire first — thereby keeping war safely bound and safely winnable, on the powerful state’s terms.

What opponents say

Opponents say the move would create distrust with our allies and embolden our enemies, and unnecessarily remove a critical component of American military might.

Kerry and Carter argue that the move would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by leaders such as Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Vladimir Putin of Russia. They also said it could worry allies such as Japan, Germany, South Korea, which currently have no nuclear weapons of their own but rely heavily on America to defend and protect them if need be. Publicly stating “no first-use” could cause such countries to develop nuclear weapons of their own, fearing a U.S. military on the decline — inadvertently causing the spread of such weapons rather than their decline.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed to oppose a potential “no first-use” policy when asked about it during last week’s presidential debate, saying, “I can’t take anything off the table.”

Odds of passage

The bills have not yet attracted any cosponsors — although they’re only a few days old — and have been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees, respectively.

Last updated Oct 3, 2016. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Sep 27, 2016.

Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016

This bill prohibits the President from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.

"First-use nuclear strike" means a nuclear weapons attack against an enemy that is conducted without the President determining that the enemy has first launched a nuclear strike against the United States or a U.S. ally.