While the Senate is focused on the struggle over whether to ratify the New START treaty during the lame duck session, foreign policy and Russia specialists are also watching the House intently, to see if it will pass a separate civilian nuclear agreement with Russia -- despite ( not surprisingly) staunch GOP opposition.
The Obama administration submitted the deal known as the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement, to Congress back in May. The agreement would allow U.S.-Russian cooperation on sharing nuclear technology for energy purposes. Shortly thereafter, a diverse coalition of Republicans and Democrats mobilized to voice their concerns. The agreement is one of several bilateral civilian nuclear agreements the Obama administration has been pushing. It has signed a deal with the UAE, is in the process of updating deals with Australia and South Korea, and is negotiating similar deals with Vietnam and Jordan.
But the Russia deal has spurred the greatest opposition, especially from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who is not only a Russia skeptic, but also the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement should be stopped," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Nov. 17. "Russia continues to undermine U.S. interests in Iran, Venezuela, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Russia promotes nuclear proliferation through its reckless policies of selling nuclear facilities, technology, and materials to any country with ready cash, including constructing the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr."
Ros-Lehtinen even introduced a congressional resolution of disapproval regarding the deal, although nobody expects the resolution to be considered on the House floor. Unlike with the New START treaty, Congress does not have to ratify civilian nuclear agreements. If Congress simply does not act and 90 days of legislative business pass, the agreement goes into effect.
But that 90-day threshold also presents an obstacle to the administration's hope to implement the agreement. Congress needs to be in session for about 15 more days this year to reach 90 days, and nobody knows if that's going to happen. If Congress returns shortly after Thanksgiving and does business for three full weeks, that's enough. But if the lame duck session is short, the administration will have to resubmit it next year.
"If the legislative clock stops before the Russia agreement is approved, the president should not resubmit it to Congress until Moscow has changed course," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen is also angry that the administration decided not to send anyone to testify at the committee's Sept. 24 hearing on the agreement. She argues that means the agreement has never had a Congressional oversight hearing, which is required by law.
"We can well understand why the Executive Branch wanted to kill a hearing on the Russia 123 agreement. Certainly none of us who have been following the overtures to the Russian government, including the removal of sanctions on Russian entities assisting Iran's nuclear and missile program, are surprised," she said at the time. "After all, it is abundantly clear that the Russia 123 agreement is a political payoff to the Russians, pure and simple, and cannot be defended on its merits."
Russia experts point out, however, that the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement preceded the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia. The deal was in fact signed by President George W. Bush and would have gone into force in 2008, but was pulled after Russia invaded Georgia. They also point out that Bush supported Moscow's assistance to Tehran in building a light water reactor at Bushehr: it was intended to allow Russia to supply nuclear fuel to Iran and, in the process, remove any materials that could be weaponized.
"The best argument against Iran having their own enrichment capacity is having another country do it for them. So Bushehr is not a proliferation risk," said Samuel Charap, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. He said that Congress probably would not move to block the deal even next year, but "even a delay is going to be misinterpreted (as a rejection of the deal) in Moscow by people who don't understand how American politics work."
A GOP House aide who works on the issue disagreed. "People differ on the risk that Bushehr represents. Some people believe a light water reactor is problematic in Iran," the aide said, adding that on Iran, "Russia should be doing much more... There are 123 agreements that don't carry the baggage that the Russia 123 agreement does."
If Congress returns the Monday after Thanksgiving, they would have to stay in session until about Dec. 9 for the agreement to go through, the aide said. So will the House leadership have enough work to keep everybody in town that long?
"That's the million dollar question," the aide said. "A lot of people are wondering what the calendar is going to look like."