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Members of the House International Relations Committee heard about President Bush’s proposed nuclear pact with Russia the same way average citizens did — in the pages of Saturday’s Washington Post. And panel members and staff, from both parties, aren’t very happy about it.
In what some in Congress say has become the norm for this administration, key Members were neither briefed nor consulted about the proposed agreement, which would allow for extensive civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia.
“Nobody got a heads-up in Congress as far as I’m aware of,” said a staff member on the committee. “We’ve had zero input. Nobody told us anything. Not a peep, not a hint, nothing.”
“What we know about it is what we read in the papers,” added another senior staff member on the committee.
The handling of the Russia nuclear proposal comes just months after a flare-up between the legislative and executive branches over a nuclear deal with India. Members and aides complained that Bush reached a verbal agreement with the Indian prime minister on a civilian nuclear deal without ever consulting Congress, then attempted to undercut Congressional oversight by changing the approval provisions for the deal.
While Congress was able to forestall the administration’s effort to cut out a significant role for lawmakers, it was unable this time to get in on the ground floor of the Russia proposal.
“The administration brought itself nine months of hand wringing and anguish over the India deal by trying to write Congress out of the deal,” said one of the staff members. “The learning curve seems to be pretty much flat.”
Fred McGoldrick, a retired State Department official who has worked on similar agreements in the past, pointed out that Congress legally is not entitled to a role in the negotiations, but that past presidents have made far greater efforts to work with Congress.
“Congress is usually not involved in the negotiations, but as a matter of courtesy, the administration usually briefs Congress,” he said, adding that he believed the proposed agreement with Russia would become even more controversial than the India deal has been. “They didn’t do this on the India [pact], but the politics are different here.”
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said he expects Congress to assert its oversight powers just as it did on the India deal.
“One thing the administration should have learned is that, at the very least, Congress is going to assert itself on the issue, at least with respect to Congressional prerogatives,” he said. “The question for Congress is what is there to jump up and down about. They should ask for detailed briefings about the nature of the possible deal.”
So far, Congressional reaction on the merits of deal has been mixed.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a leading opponent of the India nuclear deal, quickly came out against the proposed agreement with Russia as well.