House Panel Backs U.S.-Russia Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Deal

A congressional panel endorsed a measure Thursday that would give conditional approval of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Russia.

The bill means Congress will not block the deal with Russia despite objections from some lawmakers that Russia should not be rewarded until it does more to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

The bill approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee would require the president to certify that Russia is meeting certain conditions before authorizing nuclear cooperation.

Among other requirements, the president would have to certify once a year that Russia is taking certain steps to ensure that its government and citizens are not aiding Iran's nuclear weapon or ballistic missile programs. The president would also have to certify that Russia is supporting U.S. efforts to maintain international sanctions on Iran.

The Bush administration views the agreement with Russia as a breakthrough in cooperation reached at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow over issues including missile defense, NATO expansion and differences on Iran. But critics assert that Russia is impeding international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and has actively helped it master some technologies.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the committee's chairman, said following approval of the measure that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear technology should be a focus of U.S. relations with Moscow.

"Right now the priority issue is whether or not Iran gets nuclear weapons capability and what can we do to stop that," he said. "I think that should shape how we relate to Russia."

Some lawmakers from both major parties had urged the administration to drop the deal.

The committee's ranking Republican member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had urged the White House not to submit the agreement to Congress, called the bill a "compromise text."

By law, President Bush's notification of Congress on May 13 began a process to complete it. The agreement will take effect unless both chambers of Congress pass resolutions opposing it within 90 working days.

Due to a miscalculation, the administration did not submit the deal in time to ensure that this Congress has the full 90 days left before it expires following elections in November. Thus, efforts to complete the agreement in this Congress could effectively expire unless it is specifically approved by the House and Senate. The bill endorsed Thursday would serve that purpose.

However, it would have to be passed by the full House and Senate and signed by the president before taking effect. It was not clear whether the bill had support in the Senate or whether Bush would sign it.