The Obama administration is negotiating civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with a host of countries around the world. But Congress will intervene to try to stop some of those deals, if House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen but has anything to say about it.
Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-American firebrand who took over the committee last week, has promised to fight the administration's foreign policy agenda on a wide range of fronts. On her first day, she pledged to take an axe to the State Department's budget, and last month she single-handedly killed the bill to make opposition to forced child marriages an element of U.S. foreign policy. Her next target is the Atomic Energy Act (AEA), the law that governs civilian nuclear agreements -- commonly known as "123" agreements for the section of the AEA governing them.
Ros-Lehtinen is angry that the U.S. entered into a 123 agreement with Russia this month. The administration submitted the agreement to Congress last May. Ros-Lehtinen introduced a resolution to stop it during the previous congressional session, but the resolution never came up for a vote in the Democratic-led House. The deal consequently went through after the 90-day waiting period expired.
"The U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement that went into effect this week never got a vote in Congress," Ros-Lehtinen said Thursday. "The Atomic Energy Act must be reformed so that these far-reaching and potentially dangerous agreements are required to receive an up-or-down vote in Congress before going into effect."
She also promised that her bill would require the administration to certify that a country has met a number or requirements before signing a nuclear deal with the United States, and to verify that the deal would advance U.S. interests.
Ros-Lehtinen said that Russia did not deserve that "concession" due to what she calls its ongoing support of Iran's nuclear program. She specifically mentioned its assistance in building and fueling the Bushehr nuclear plant, even though George W. Bush's administration actually supported that project.
She also criticized Russia for continuing "to shield Iran from U.S. and international sanctions and taking other actions that undermine U.S. interests around the world, such as selling weapons to Syria and signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Burmese regime, which is a North Korea nuclear partner."
In Ros-Lehtinen's view, the administration has given several "concessions" to Russia already, including the New START nuclear reductions pact, changes in European missile defense plans, and exempting Russian companies from Iranian sanctions.
Others in Congress opposed the Russia 123 agreement, including Ed Markey (D-MA), chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee. That loose coalition could create problems for the administration if and when it completes new 123 agreements.
The next countries in line for 123 agreements are Vietnam and Jordan, and their deals promise to face a different criticism than the agreement with Russia. Critics in both parties on Capitol Hill are set to press the administration to include bans on plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment in the deals, and those countries aren't likely to agree.
The administration painted itself into a corner on this issue when it hailed the 2009 123 agreement with the UAE as the "gold standard," because it included the provisions banning enrichment. But team Obama then hit a wall when Vietnam refused to agree to the same prohibitions. Jordan as well has indicated it wants to preserve what it views as its right to produce nuclear fuel sometime in the future.
If the administration insists on the prohibitions now, it risks causing the pending deals with Vietnam and Jordan to unravel in the short term, and perhaps losing out on other potential deals in the longer term. If the administration backs down and signs agreements without nuclear fuel production restrictions, it will cause a bipartisan uproar on Capitol Hill.
Inside the administration, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman has been arguing for months that the administration should just get rid of the enrichment provisions. On the other side of the debate, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg has taken the position that the provisions are important.
In addition to Vietnam and Jordan, the administration is also considering beginning negotiations on a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia. Ros-Lehtinen has already come out as a critic of the administration's plan to sell $60 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom.
Last August, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Obama to demand that the UAE standard be applied to all future civilian nuclear deals. The lawmakers threw Obama's own words from his 2009 speech in Prague back at him, when the president said, "We need a new paradigm for civil nuclear cooperation that allows all countries to enjoy the benefits of nuclear power, while avoiding the spread of nuclear weapons and technologies."
"That new paradigm exists," the lawmakers wrote, referring to the UAE standard.
In November, a group of 16 non-proliferation experts wrote to the administration to demand that the standard in the UAE 123 agreement be extended to U.S. federal energy loan guarantees, federal contracts, or other subsidies or assistance to help foreign government-backed nuclear firms expand their nuclear business in the United States.
The letter was signed by right-leaning experts such as Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, as well as left-leaning experts such as Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
"All of us believe that it makes no sense for our government to help foreign firms expand their nuclear business in the U.S. with federal loan guarantees, government contracts, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses unless they are willing to support the very toughest nuclear nonproliferation standards our own government has developed in the U.S.-UAE deal," the experts wrote.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.