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Pressure Intensifies for Senate Hearing on White House Nuclear Trade Policy

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), left, is pressing Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to convene a hearing to examine the Obama administration’s nuclear trade policy (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), left, is pressing Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to convene a hearing to examine the Obama administration’s nuclear trade policy (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers and issue experts are joining forces across party lines in an effort to persuade Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to schedule a hearing on a controversial Obama administration policy on nuclear trade (see GSN, Feb. 17).

The panel’s ranking member, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), has begun some political arm-twisting aimed at heightening pressure on the chairman and the Obama administration over the newly articulated policy.  In addition, this week nearly 20 nuclear nonproliferation experts from across the political divide contacted Kerry to urge that he summon witnesses to testify about the matter.

Senior officials from the State and Energy departments in January told key congressional committees that they would take a “case-by-case” approach in deciding whether to demand the strictest nonproliferation measures in trade deals that give non-nuclear-armed nations access to U.S. atomic technology and materials.  The new policy was the result of a divisive interagency review that began in 2010 (see GSN, Jan. 25, 2011).

The policy would be applied to new U.S. talks with Vietnam, according to a Jan. 10 letter signed by Daniel Poneman, the deputy Energy secretary, and Ellen Tauscher, then undersecretary of State for arms control and international security (see GSN, Jan. 12).

Administration officials have said they would urge selected nuclear cooperation partner nations to pledge not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on their soil, but would not necessarily seek such a commitment in every negotiation. 

A State Department spokesman once branded a “no-ENR” promise the “gold standard” for advancing nonproliferation objectives, modeled after an agreement that Washington sealed with the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

Enrichment and reprocessing activities can be conducted as part of a civil nuclear energy program, but also can increase the risk that a nation will secretly divert sensitive materials to military efforts aimed at building an atomic weapon.  Iran is suspected of pursuing a nuclear arms capacity under the guise of a program that its leaders insist is solely dedicated to peaceful energy generation.

The White House is now grappling with heightened international tensions over the Iranian situation, as Tehran appears to move closer to a weapon capacity.  At the same time, the Tauscher-Poneman letter describing the administration's nuclear trade policy indicated that a no-ENR commitment was not possible in every deal because Washington must “negotiate agreements that our partners can accept and that open doors to U.S. industry” (see GSN, Jan. 23).

Over the past two months, the issue has become highly charged. 

Three of the top four House and Senate foreign affairs committee Democrats and Republicans -- all except for Kerry -- are known to have protested that the administration could miss crucial opportunities to prevent the spread of nuclear arms if it fails to more actively advocate an embrace of the gold standard worldwide.

In recent weeks, a New York Times editorial, as well as a published commentary by political opposites Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and former State Department official John Bolton, urged the White House to rethink its trade and nonproliferation approach.

Critics say they are concerned that the administration might seek to complete negotiations with Jordan and Vietnam on trade pacts that stop short of meeting the gold standard.  Of perhaps even more worry are indications that Washington could launch long-anticipated nuclear cooperation talks with Saudi Arabia, despite comments from the royal family suggesting that it might seek to build or acquire atomic weapons to counter Iran and Israel (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).

The Senate committee’s Democratic and Republican staff directors initially agreed to schedule a hearing this year on nuclear trade and nonproliferation policy.  The Democratic-led staff’s draft plans for the hearing were quickly nixed without explanation, though, according to congressional aides.

Lugar has launched a behind-the-scenes effort to press Kerry on the topic, asking him in a letter last month to hold a hearing “in the near future” on the trade policy’s “implications for U.S. security from nuclear threats.”

The Indiana Republican has also made known that he has reservations about confirming Joseph Macmanus, President Obama’s nominee to become the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, according to a senior Senate aide. Without a formal committee session dedicated to the trade-and-nonproliferation issues, Lugar has signaled that he would grill Macmanus on the emerging policy during his confirmation hearing, the staffer said.

Several aides and issue experts closely tracking the issue offered comments for this article but asked not to be named, lacking permission to speak publicly.

This week, tentative signs emerged that Kerry would ultimately schedule a hearing dedicated to the policy debate, presumably featuring key administration policy officials, Capitol Hill staffers said.

Kerry has recently indicated to committee staff that he intends to hold a hearing, Global Security Newswire has learned.  However, no session has yet been scheduled -- and will not be set until sometime after the administration briefs the senator on the policy, Capitol Hill sources said.

A State Department meeting with Kerry to discuss the nuclear trade policy decision reportedly was slated for March 1, but was canceled at the last minute and has not yet been rescheduled. 

A panel spokeswoman offered a brief comment in response to questions about whether the one-time Democratic presidential nominee supports holding a public forum on the topic and in what time frame.

“The committee is working on scheduling a hearing,” said Jodi Seth, who represents both Kerry and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

According to another Senate aide, some State Department officials have indicated that the White House and the chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee came to an understanding that no hearing on enrichment and reprocessing would be held until “well after” a nuclear security summit takes place in South Korea late this month.  A State spokesman did not respond to questions on the issue by press time.

Obama in April 2010 sponsored the first such gathering of world leaders to discuss tightening international controls over sensitive atomic materials.  The U.S. team intends to demonstrate leadership again on the issue during the March 26-27 event in Seoul, National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino said on Thursday. 

As Obama ramps up his re-election campaign, Democrats are keen to demonstrate support for creating and maintaining jobs in the U.S. nuclear industry.  At the same time, the president would want to avoid any embarrassment on nuclear nonproliferation, one of his signature issues, according to several political pundits.

The nascent signs that a Senate committee hearing might be in the offing come on the heels of a new appeal letter, signed by 17 former government officials and issue experts from across the political spectrum.

The diverse figures -- including Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright, former Bush administration Defense policy chief Eric Edelman, and Council for a Livable World Executive Director John Isaacs -- urged Kerry “to hold a hearing as soon as possible to evaluate the security and nonproliferation implications” of the Obama administration’s case-by-case approach.

The negotiating policy runs the risk that no country discussing a nuclear trade pact with the United States would forswear ENR capabilities because its leaders would know that such a restriction is not being required of other nations, the March 7 letter argues.

“A hearing convened by your committee would send a strong message to these countries that you and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [consider] this commitment a vital addition, the absence of which could cause much controversy for their agreements in the Congress,” the missive reads.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, there are currently no plans for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold hearings on the trade and nonproliferation debate. 

However, there is little to no contention over the matter in that panel after it unanimously approved legislation last April that would strengthen Congress’s ability to debate -- and potentially reject -- nuclear trade pacts that fail to meet the gold standard (see GSN, April 15, 2011).

Panel Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-Fla.) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) in 2011 co-sponsored H.R. 1280, but the House Rules Committee is “actively blocking it,” said one aide in that chamber this week. 

The two top lawmakers on the panel also have appealed repeatedly to the Obama administration to clarify its policy and strengthen its advocacy for the gold standard in atomic trade negotiations.

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