WASHINGTON – Despite misgivings about Russia, Congress appears unlikely to block a deal that would allow U.S. companies to export nuclear technology to America's former Cold War rival.
The probable passage of the civil nuclear agreement stands in contrast to the unexpectedly rocky road facing a separate treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian atomic arsenals.
The difference has as much to do with politics as with the agreements themselves.
Passage of the nuclear arms pact, known as New START, would be seen as a triumph for President Barack Obama. In the current political environment, Republicans may not want to allow Obama such a victory, especially with congressional elections approaching in November.
But Obama cannot claim much credit for the civil nuclear agreement, which was negotiated under his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
The civil agreement also has support from lawmakers from both parties whose districts include businesses that could benefit from U.S. nuclear exports to Russia.
And the process of getting it approved is much simpler. It will take effect unless Congress votes to block it, an unlikely occurrence. The nuclear arms agreement will not be ratified unless two-thirds of the Senate votes to support it.
So if Congress, facing a crowded end-of-year agenda, does not act on either plan, the civil agreement effectively passes, while New START stalls.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl has been the pivotal Republican on the New START agreement. He wants the Obama administration to increase the money allocated for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Other Republicans are waiting to see what Kyl will do before they commit.
But on the civil nuclear agreement, Kyl has been largely silent. He told reporters recently that he had misgivings about it, but he did not elaborate. He said he did not want to distract attention from the New START debate.
The civil nuclear agreement would allow the United States and Russia to exchange nuclear energy technology, engage in joint commercial nuclear power ventures and collaborate on nonproliferation goals. Moscow hopes it will lead to major contracts for its nuclear industry.
The agreement was first submitted to Congress in May 2008. The Bush administration angrily withdrew the deal shortly after Russia's invasion of Georgia two months later.
The Obama administration resubmitted the deal in May as relations improved with Moscow. It is also seen as a reward for Russia's improved cooperation on reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
So far, few lawmakers have objected. While a resolution of disapproval sponsored by some Democrats and Republicans in the House has been introduced, it looks unlikely to gain traction.
Opponents have said Russia should not be rewarded while it continues to help Iran build a nuclear power plant and train Iranian physicists. But that objection was blunted when Russia agreed in June to support U.N. sanctions against Iran.
Barring congressional action, the agreement will take effect after 90 days in which Congress is in session. That would probably fall in October.