Senior members from both chambers of the U.S. Congress announced on Monday that they had reached consensus on defense legislation that could affect the Obama administration's nuclear weapons policies, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Dec. 9).
The fiscal 2012 authorization bill would allow $662 billion in spending for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a host of other defense programs and acquisitions, along with national security activities at the Energy Department.
The legislation had included several contested components, including language on handling of combat detainees and sanctions on non-U.S. entities that conduct business with Iran's central bank. The Obama administration had argued that instituting such punitive measures as a means of curbing Iran's nuclear program could damage the global economy and required cooperation with Washington's partner governments.
A conference committee was formed to address differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill, with the Democratic and Republican heads of each chamber's Armed Services Committee meeting behind closed doors last week.
It was not immediately clear how the negotiators had dealt with differing language related to the U.S. nuclear force.
The House version could limit the administration's capacity to reduce deployed or nondeployed nuclear weapons below levels set by the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear arms control pact, unless required by another treaty or authorized by Congress.
The agreement, which entered into force in February, caps each side's fielded strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a ceiling of 2,200 dictated by an earlier treaty. The agreement also limits deployed strategic nuclear delivery systems at 700, with an additional 100 platforms permitted in reserve.
The House bill could also prohibit the executive branch from eliminating weapons from the "hedge force" until the mid-2020s. The hedge force consists of warheads that could be put on alert in a crisis, in case a resurgent threat develops or a major technical problem is discovered in fielded weapons.
The Senate legislation included no restrictions on negotiated or unilateral arms reductions, restricting its mandates to a limited number of Defense Department reports on force levels and strategy.
Regarding sanctions against Tehran for its contested nuclear program, Senator Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) said, "Moving forward, the Congress will need to be more vigilant than ever before in holding the administration's feet to the fire to collapse the Central Bank of Iran and force international financial institutions to choose between doing business in the U.S. and doing business in Iran."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that "96 percent" of the compromise bill remained in line with the measure approved in a 100-0 vote of the upper chamber. He said there had been some revisions in wording following consultation with the Treasury Department (Donna Cassata, Associated Press I/Time, Dec. 13).
"It does curtail Iran's ability to buy and sell petroleum through its central bank and prevents foreign financial institutions that deal with the central bank of Iran from continuing their access to the U.S. financial system," Agence France-Presse quoted Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the chamber's Armed Services Committee, as saying.
"They are going to pay a bigger and bigger price should they continue to move towards nuclear weapons," added Levin, who said he did not expect President Obama to follow through on previous threats to veto the legislation over the detainee language (Olivier Knox, Agence France-Presse/Google News, Dec. 12).
Meanwhile, Congress appears to be moving toward approval of a $1 trillion funding bill needed to keep the federal government operating past Friday, AP reported.
The omnibus measure would increase appropriations for programs to maintain and update the nation's nuclear weapons.
The formal rollout of the bill was expected on Tuesday, according to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). The House was expected to vote on the measure on Thursday, with Senate action expected before the current continuing funding resolution expires at midnight on Friday (Andrew Taylor, Associated Press II/ABC News, Dec. 13).