WASHINGTON – A congressional attempt to bring the United States into line with two nuclear security agreements appeared to stall late last week as a Republican senator sought changes to a compliance bill cleared this summer by the House of Representatives.
The proposed updates might prove unacceptable to House lawmakers, preventing approval of the legislation before the current Congress adjourns in January. Meanwhile, a secret GOP hold has prevented the House-approved language from advancing through the Senate, according to a key Democratic lawmaker in that chamber.
The amended version of the bill -- put forward on Friday by Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) -- would eliminate several alterations House lawmakers made to an earlier Obama administration draft of the legislation. Among other changes, the senator would reinstate language to the House proposal that might allow for the execution of a person convicted of an “act of nuclear terrorism” if it results in death, according to Beth Levine, Grassley’s Judiciary panel spokeswoman.
“The death penalty is something that Senator Grassley and many others thought necessary,” said Levine, who declined to elaborate on the identities or political leanings of others in support of its inclusion in the bill.
An amendment attached to the legislation by Grassley would also reintroduce a measure to extend federal wiretapping authorities to specifically include investigations related to a nuclear incident.
Both provisions had faced vocal opposition from Democrats on the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee. The Bush and Obama administrations provided the House panel with multiple prior proposals for implementing the treaties, but none were formally introduced by lawmakers.
Congress entered recess on Saturday, and it is not expected to resume full operation until the lame-duck session after the November election.
“I think Senator Grassley hopes that the House and the Senate will pass” his amended version of the bill, Levine said when asked if the lawmaker expects endorsement by both legislative chambers, despite his proposal’s inclusion of sticking-point provisions that had previously prevented passage of similar draft bills in the House of Representatives.
The legislation is intended to ensure the United States meets legal standards required under the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The pact, which entered into force in 2007 and now has 82 states parties, requires member nations to legally prohibit individuals from holding or using nuclear or radiological weapons, as well as from possessing related materials with the intent of causing death and destruction. It also establishes guidelines for cooperating in the extradition and prosecution of individuals linked to a nuclear plot or threat. The United States remains outside the regime.
The bill would also bring the United States into line with a 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The amendment updates the original 1980s-era pact governing international shipments of civilian nuclear material to also include standards for securing nonmilitary atomic substances held, used or transferred within a single nation’s borders. The update must be ratified by 97 of the convention's 145 states parties to take effect; 57 countries had submitted instruments of ratification, acceptance or approval as of Aug. 1, according to a U.N. document.
An implementing law would enable the United States to complete a ratification process largely stalled since September 2008, when the Senate issued resolutions of advice and consent for the nuclear security agreements and two other pacts addressed in the congressional proposal: the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and the 2005 Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf. Compliance legislation would require approval from both houses of Congress and the president.
White House intervention might be necessary to break the deadlock, said Andrew Semmel, an advocate for U.S. ratification of the nuclear security agreements and a retired veteran staffer for Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
“It could very well be any number of reasons why they’re dragging their feet on this,” according to Semmel, who also served under the Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of State for nuclear nonproliferation policy and negotiations. “Oftentimes … if you follow the Senate and the House, the issue is not really the issue. It’s something else,” he told Global Security Newswire in an interview.
Washington’s formal endorsement of the 2005 nuclear materials amendment could hasten the measure’s entry into force by encouraging its ratification by other countries, a number of arms control advocates and former high-level U.S. officials have argued.
“Diplomats in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have made a point of urging ratification of these two treaties in meetings with their counterparts,” Semmel stated in a Washington Times commentary published earlier this month.
“There is little doubt that other countries look to the U.S. for leadership to help make it easier for them to ratify the treaties and contribute their part in the global fight against nuclear terrorism,” Semmel wrote. “The immediate fate of the implementing legislation that is needed to enact and complete ratification of these two treaties rests with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate.”
In a written response to Semmel, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) last week said he had unsuccessfully requested unanimous Senate approval of the bill passed on June 28 by the House of Representatives.
The House proposal “has now been cleared by all Senate Democrats,” Leahy wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to the Times. “Unfortunately an anonymous Republican hold has been placed on the bill.”
Leahy’s Sept. 12 attempt to “hotline” the bill, had it been successful, would have sent the legislation to the White House for President Obama’s signature without undergoing direct scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary panel. The Obama administration voiced support for the House rewrite of the legislation in a June 21 Justice Department letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill’s chief sponsor in that chamber.
Grassley’s office denied knowledge of any secret hold on the House-approved legislation, but acknowledged that the senator had unsuccessfully asked Leahy to either schedule the House bill for committee markup or “allow for a fair amendment process on the floor.”
Last Friday, Grassley sought unanimous endorsement of his revised proposal via the same process used by Leahy, Levine said. The lawmaker’s draft “cleared the Republican side of the Senate,” she said, “but I do not know what happened on the Democrats’ side.”
His version of the bill, which would require approval from House lawmakers should it receive Senate backing, includes what the spokeswoman described as a significant “technical fix” to the language the lower chamber approved in June.
A line of the text incorrectly refers to a “place of public use” rather than a “public transportation system,” Levine stated by e-mail. “It is important that the definition track the correct definition as they are different places,” she wrote.