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Nuclear Security Treaties Bill Clears House; Senate Prospects Unclear

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

U.S. Coast Guard officers in March 2010 board a ship carrying highly enriched uranium at the Charleston Weapons Station in South Carolina. The House of Representatives this week approved a bill to implement two nuclear counterterrorism treaties, but a Republican senator on Tuesday challenged elements that caused a 2012 draft to stall in the upper chamber (AP Photo/Mic Smith). U.S. Coast Guard officers in March 2010 board a ship carrying highly enriched uranium at the Charleston Weapons Station in South Carolina. The House of Representatives this week approved a bill to implement two nuclear counterterrorism treaties, but a Republican senator on Tuesday challenged elements that caused a 2012 draft to stall in the upper chamber (AP Photo/Mic Smith).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly approved legislation to ensure the United States complies with two broadly supported international nuclear security accords, but a key Senate opponent of a 2012 draft on Tuesday affirmed his opposition to language in the latest bill.

The 390-3 vote marked the chamber's second endorsement of measures required to fully ratify the treaties and two separate maritime security agreements. The two nuclear pacts, which address nuclear terrorism law and domestic nuclear material security, are themselves relatively noncontroversial; the Senate issued resolutions of advice and consent for them in 2008. House lawmakers, though, took nearly four years to break a stalemate over measures that could in part extend wiretapping authorities and application of the death penalty in nuclear terrorism cases.

Eliminating those elements last summer allowed the House for the first time to pass legislation to implement the treaties. However, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) opposed that bill largely due to removal of those measures, and an anonymous GOP hold prevented the House-backed proposal from advancing through the Senate.

Grassley's office on Tuesday said the senator "would prefer the bill go through the regular committee process" rather than bypassing panel consideration, which would require unanimous Senate approval.

"However, Senator Grassley would be willing to consider it on the Senate floor with a time agreement and a vote on the death penalty," Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine told Global Security Newswire by e-mail. She was not immediately available to provide clarification, but Senate Democrats last year prevented passage of a draft containing revisions sought by Grassley.

The chief sponsor of the latest House-approved bill emphasized its bipartisan drafting process.

"It is my hope that the Senate will act swiftly to pass this important legislation," said Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee.

As with four prior drafts, the newest bill would complete U.S. ratification of the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The pact, which entered into force in 2007 and now has 86 states parties, requires member nations to criminalize possession and use of nuclear and radiological weapons by individuals. It establishes guidelines for cooperating in the extradition and prosecution of individuals linked to a nuclear plot or threat.

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.

Sixty-seven governments had fully adopted the amendment as of last month. To take effect, the measure must receive backing from two-thirds of the full treaty's signatories. The original convention now has 148 members, placing the amendment's implementation threshold at 99 states, a coalition of more than 70 national security and arms control organizations said in a statement.

"Many other countries have indicated that they are waiting for the United States to complete ratification before moving ahead with their own ratification processes, since it was the United States that pushed for the amendment in the first place,” Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said in comments released by the Fissile Materials Working Group.

Responding to one of Grassley's key objections to the House-approved language, Reif and another expert argued last week that existing law already allows for the execution of convicted nuclear terrorists.

"In the wake of the Boston attacks, it seems clear that an attack involving radiological or nuclear material would allow prosecutors plenty of latitude to seek the death penalty. In other words, the ideological battle between [Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)] and Grassley over their legislation would not matter," Reif and Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote in a World Politics Review column published on Friday.

Mirroring its 2012 predecessor, the latest bill would result in "no significant cost to the federal government" should it become law, the Congressional Budget Office said in March.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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