Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has added her name to a growing bipartisan list of influential lawmakers protesting a newly unveiled Obama administration policy on nuclear trade and nonproliferation (see GSN, Jan. 23).
Three of the four top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels have issued plaintive letters on the matter over the past three weeks.
Officials with the State and Energy departments last month notified key congressional committees that an interagency policy review after more than a year had endorsed a “case-by-case” approach to nuclear trade negotiations, and the policy would be applied to new U.S. talks with Vietnam.
In doing so, the administration rejected calls from both political parties to seek assurances from international trade partners on nonproliferation provisions before Washington would ink cooperative deals to provide sensitive nuclear energy technologies, materials, and expertise.
Advocates have said that at a minimum, a stricter nonproliferation standard should be upheld in the volatile Middle East. It is unclear, though, whether such an approach would be implemented in an anticipated trade pact with Jordan, or with other regional states seeking access to the U.S. nuclear industry.
Pressure from Capitol Hill has focused on replicating a promise the Obama team received from the United Arab Emirates in a 2009 deal not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium on UAE soil. A State Department spokesman branded this “no-ENR” pledge the “gold standard” for future U.S. nuclear commerce pacts.
However, administration officials in 2010 told Capitol Hill that atomic trade deals in the works with Vietnam and Jordan might not meet the newly minted gold standard. Lawmaker alarm at the apparent policy backtrack spurred the administration review that led to the case-by-case policy outlined in a Jan. 10 letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign affairs panels.
In a letter Tuesday, obtained by Global Security Newswire, Ros-Lehtinen registered her opposition to what she called “this reversal of policy” and urged the administration to reconsider its decision. She also included a not-too-subtle threat.
“Failure to fully address this issue will inevitably result in corrective action by the Congress,” the 12-term lawmaker wrote to the senior officials who signed the administration’s letter, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and senior State Department official Ellen Tauscher. Tauscher early this month stepped down as undersecretary of State for arms control and nonproliferation, but remains at State as a special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense issues.
Ros-Lehtinen’s letter follows a similar missive by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He wrote to Tauscher and Poneman on Jan. 27 to express his own concerns about the emerging administration policy, GSN has learned.
In that letter -- an unusual policy rebuke by a legislative leader from President Obama’s own party -- Berman said he would oppose any pact with Vietnam that emerges from the ongoing negotiations if it does not contain a “credible” ENR provision, according to congressional sources.
The lawmaker’s red line appears to have been prompted by the absence of a firm administration commitment to condition an agreement on a no-ENR pledge by the Southeast Asian nation or even to promote the merits of such a nonproliferation step.
“Our team will explain to Vietnam the procedures in the United States for congressional review, and lay out a spectrum of options for addressing enrichment and reprocessing in a 123 agreement,” the Tauscher-Poneman policy letter stated.
The wording of Berman’s letter could still leave some wiggle room for the administration to earn the high-ranking House Democrat’s support, according to sources. U.S. envoys might be able to negotiate ENR assurances from Hanoi that do not necessarily match the UAE pledge, but that do erect comparable barriers to proliferation, these issue experts said.
Ros-Lehtinen and Berman last year cosponsored legislation, dubbed H.R. 1280, that if enacted would strengthen the ability of Congress to reject nuclear trade accords that lawmakers find problematic (see GSN, April 15, 2011).
Poneman on Friday said some of the lawmaker worries appear to be without basis.