WASHINGTON – Momentum is building in Congress to revamp and expand a program credited with destroying thousands of nuclear weapons from Soviet stockpiles and keeping them out of terrorists' hands.
For 14 years, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program (search) has paid for the dismantling of Cold War-era nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. But bureaucratic logjams have resulted from rules set by Congress to ensure the billions of dollars spent on the program are used properly.
Sen. Richard Lugar (search), R-Ind., who co-sponsored the original bill with then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said he will introduce legislation to loosen those restrictions and make it easier to use the program outside the former Soviet Union (search). Lugar is also proposing a separate program to destroy stockpiles of conventional weapons.
While prospects for passage are uncertain given the vagaries of the legislative process, Lugar has some powerful allies.
President Bush has backed the Nunn-Lugar program and, in last fall's presidential debates, said the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists represented the single most serious threat to the United States.
The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recommended the United States do all that it can to support Nunn-Lugar.
At her confirmation hearing last week to become secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice said she supports Lugar's proposals and would push for their approval.
"I really can think of nothing more important than being able to proceed with the dismantlement - safe dismantlement of the Soviet arsenal," she said under questioning from Lugar, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee that was considering her nomination.
Some House Republicans have had reservations about the program, saying millions of dollars have been spent on facilities that couldn't be used or projects that had little to do with weapons of mass destruction.
But a leading House Republican on national security issues, Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, said the question is: "Is it worth the risk of possible wasting of some dollars to achieve an end which is the greater control of nuclear materials in other countries?"
"There are people who think we shouldn't do any of these programs unless we have a great audit trail," she said. "Well, there are some places where we are never going to have a great audit trail, where it might still be worth pursuing the program."
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said U.S. disputes with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) shouldn't interfere with cooperation on dismantling arms.
"I have a lot of concern with Putin's attack on the media, Putin's attack on democracy and his attack on human rights. None of those concerns is a reason for us not to cooperate on proliferation initiatives," Cox said.
Cox and Wilson spoke at a news conference in which House Republicans released a broad nuclear nonproliferation strategy that included support for expanding Nunn-Lugar "while seeking to improve business practices where needed."
Separately, three House Democrats offered their own bill to step up nonproliferation efforts. That bill calls for an expansion of cooperative threat reduction programs.
Lugar's proposal would eliminate requirements that the president certify that Russia and other participants meet certain criteria, such as investing their own money in destroying weapons, allowing U.S. verification of weapons destruction, and meeting human rights standards. Presidents have often waived those requirements.
The proposal by Lugar would also eliminate additional conditions affecting the construction of a chemical weapons destruction facility in Shchuchye, Russia. The construction has been hampered by disputes between the United States and Russia.
It also would lift the $50 million cap on funds that can be used on Nunn-Lugar projects outside the former Soviet Union. Last year, Nunn-Lugar money was used to destroy chemical weapons in Albania, the first time it was used outside the Soviet Union.
The Nunn-Lugar program is credited with deactivating or destroying 6,564 nuclear warheads, 568 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 761 nuclear air-to-surface missiles, 543 submarine-launched missiles, 28 nuclear submarines and other parts of the Soviet Union's nuclear program.