A second State Department official on Thursday suggested the talks have intensified in the last month.
“Things have started moving with Congress, and we are now working with them to enact legislation that will allow us to implement the treaties,” the official -- also not authorized to comment on the record -- stated by e-mail.
Staffers from both houses have been working on their own proposals for implementing the four international agreements, the first official said, adding that all negotiations on legislative measures have used the Justice Department’s proposal as a starting point.
“There have been some discussions regarding draft legislation from the House side, draft legislation from the Senate side, so we’re working with both sides to try to realize legislation that could get through both houses expeditiously,” the source said.
The administration’s 2011 draft bill for the two nuclear agreements nearly matches the first, with the exception of brief additions that the State Department official said were intended to match the international and U.S. definitions of a “nuclear weapons state.”
Spokespeople for every participating committee turned down requests to discuss the latest roadblocks. The State Department insider, though, said lawmakers remained deeply concerned about two provisions in the Justice Department’s latest bill that take steps not required by the international nuclear security agreements: language to make an “act of nuclear terrorism” as defined under the law an executable offense if it results in death, and a measure to extend federal wiretapping authorities to specifically include investigations related to a nuclear incident.
House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee ranking member Bobby Scott, D-Va., took issue with both aspects of the legislation at a hearing convened last October.
“The administration has clearly asked for more than is necessary to implement these treaties,” he said, noting the pacts themselves still enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.
In a separate criticism, Scott said the administration’s proposals would result in legal redundancies. The nuclear-security compliance text would create a new section of the federal criminal code, but the lawmaker said “existing statutes already cover most of our obligations” under the pacts. Any mandates in the four international accords not covered by existing U.S. law should be addressed “in a manner that simplifies the criminal code rather than complicates it,” Scott said.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann at the hearing acknowledged “some overlap” with existing statutes.
It is uncertain to what extent GOP lawmakers on the panel share the concerns of their Democratic counterparts. The State Department insider admitted that “the death penalty has been an issue for some folks but not an issue for other folks,” but subcommittee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., railed with Scott at a December hearing against what both lawmakers described as a proliferation of unnecessary federal criminal statutes.
The State Department official said he was “confident we’re going to have consensus” on the legislation. “Everyone supports the aims of the treaty and what we’re trying to do and everyone’s trying to work with us and find ways to do it.”
It was still unclear how soon a deal could be reached, the official said, adding the administration has consistently sought in talks with congressional staff to “impart a sense of urgency” for completing ratification of all four security deals.
Pomper, though, said implementing the two nuclear agreements “is not a high priority item for Congress.”
“There’s not a lot of political benefit to doing this, and … even though they’re important, they’re sort of obscure to your average congressman, and they’re not going to win or lose an election on it,” the expert said.
The security benefits of the two agreements could outweigh their domestic political significance, statements by U.S. and international experts suggest. Both measures are “essential elements of the global nuclear-security architecture,” according to the 2010 summit communique and a statement by current and former top officials assembled to advise South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the upcoming forum in Seoul.
“These treaties already won broad bipartisan support from the Senate in 2008 so passing simple legislation to implement them should be possible,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., told Global Security Newswire in an e-mail statement.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the number of countries that have ratified the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material amendment. The correct number is 53.