The Cable

There's another U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement before Congress this year

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."

The Cable

White House moving ahead on New START with or without Jon Kyl

Now that Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has made it clear he will not agree to support the New START treaty this year, despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to hold the vote during the lame duck session, the White House has redoubled efforts to find nine Republican “yes” votes that don’t include Kyl, the Republican’s designated leader on the issue.

For over a year, the intensive administration effort to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty with Russia has focused primarily on securing the support of one GOP senator. The efforts included over 30 high-level interactions with Kyl, as detailed in a White House fact sheet circulated on Friday, as well as intensive efforts to secure over $84 billion for nuclear modernization that Kyl demanded.

But inside the White House, there’s frustration and exasperation with Kyl, especially since he is still saying he’s not ready to agree to a vote. So the administration is apparently playing hardball now, charging ahead toward a vote with or without his support.

In a small roundtable at the White House on Friday afternoon with columnists, including your humble Cable guy, Vice President Joseph Biden flatly rejected the argument that the administration took too long to give the Senate enough time to debate and vote on the treaty this year.

“That is not true, there’s been no delay here,” Biden said. “The reason we didn’t push earlier is that the Republican leadership said to us ‘Look, Jon Kyl is the point guy.’ Literally, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell said Jon Kyl, which was kind of a kick in the teeth to [Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican] Dick [Lugar], but Jon Kyl, he’s the guy, unless you get Jon…”

Biden was careful not to say that Kyl was intentionally moving the goalposts as a delaying strategy, but he did detail Kyl’s several new requests for various things as the Senate consultation process progressed.

“Jon did a really good job of asking for a whole lot of information and commitments,” Biden said. “Jon then came back and asked for something that I don’t every recall has been done before, and that is ask us to go on the line now, which we have, on the fiscal year 2012 budget and make it clear what we were going to do, to the point where I’ve already got to the appropriations committee and said, ‘this is what I expect.’”

“I don’t want to say Jon was conditioning, but it was an indirect condition,” Biden said. “After 36 years in the Senate, I knew if we tried to move the treaty in June, July, September, it was going to go nowhere because Jon would be able to say to a lot of Republicans who would just as soon, as we Catholics say, have this cup pass from us, to be in a position to say ‘we just can’t do it.’”

Three senior administration officials, speaking after Biden left the meeting, said that they were continuing to work as fast as they could to try meet Kyl's demands and answer his questions.

“We’re hearing from Senator Kyl that we came too late with this offer, we don’t have enough time to study it. It’s quite an extraordinary thing, showing the budget to Congress three months early, I don’t think it’s ever been done before. And two days after we finalized the numbers, we flew a team to Arizona to see him and present it to him for three hours. So now he says we are ‘too late,’ when it was he who laid out the schedule,” one senior administration official said.

“It was Senator Kyl himself who suggested that the lame duck would be an appropriate time to look at the START treaty back in early September,” said a different senior administration official. “It’s ready for a vote and we had some expectation, although not a guarantee, that the lame duck was a possibility.”

The bottom line is that the White House is no longer counting on Kyl to bring around his caucus and has reverted back to an earlier, second-track strategy to reach out to all the other GOP senators the administration thinks might vote “yes.”

“There’s a number that we need to get to get this passed. The question is, if Senator Kyl decides he is not able to support it now, whether a number of other Republicans would come on board and support the treaty,” one official said. “We believe that at the end of the day we will have made that so clear, the broader argument on the merits of treaty… can carry the day with enough Republican senators to get this passed.”

One official allowed that if GOP senators decide to vote for the treaty despite Kyl’s intransigence, it would not necessarily mean they were breaking with Kyl.

“No matter the decision Senator Kyl makes on how he votes, he’s in a position because of the work we’ve done together on modernization to say he’s gotten a real success here. I don’t think anyone would be abandoning Senator Kyl if they decide to vote for the treaty and he decides to vote against it,” the official explained.

The officials said that the administration is committed to holding a vote this year and was working with that single goal in mind. There’s no work being done to plan for a debate and vote next year.

So if they come to the end of the lame duck session and the White House hasn’t secured 67 firm “yes” votes, what will happen? Will the president call on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)to force the vote and hope that GOP fence-sitters make the right choice? Or will the administration table the treaty and try again next session?

“We’ll have to make a judgment. We’re doing all the work we need to do to put this before the Senate. We’ll try to make our best estimate about where we are and people above my pay grade will have to make that decision,” one official said.