Bush sends Russia nuclear pact to skeptical Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush asked Congress on Tuesday to review a civilian nuclear deal with Russia, but lawmakers warned there may be attempts to block it over Moscow’s links to Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia and the United States signed the cooperation deal last week to allow the world’s two biggest atomic powers to expand their nuclear trade.

But many lawmakers say Moscow does not deserve such treatment because of its support of Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at building an atomic bomb.

Bush, in pushing for the nuclear agreement with Russia, has turned “a deaf ear to a critical mass of concern in Congress,” said Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who like Bush is a Republican.

“I will be working to garner the support of my colleagues in Congress to pass legislation to block this agreement until our concerns are addressed,” Coleman said in a statement. He has already gathered signatures of 32 senators with doubts about the pact.

In the House of Representatives, the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican member of the International Affairs Committee aired strong reservations about the deal, which takes effect unless Congress moves to stop it in 90 legislative days.

“The Bush administration has not received enough support from Russia in dealing with Iran to justify moving forward with this agreement at this time,” said the chairman, Rep. Howard Berman of California. He said the panel would review the agreement and consider its options.

“This nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia faces strong bipartisan opposition, a fact made clear to the administration well in advance of its decision to send the agreement to Congress,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Washington believes Iran harbors ambitions to produce a nuclear weapon. Russia has delivered nuclear fuel under a $1 billion contract to build Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Bush says, however, that Russia has proposed a possible solution: an international nuclear fuel bank that would supply countries like Iran in a bid to discourage them from developing their own nuclear fuel cycle facilities that could be used for covert weapons programs.

The civilian nuclear agreement with Russia would clear the way for Washington and U.S. companies to cooperate with Russia in setting up such a fuel bank, administration officials say.

A letter from Bush to Congress did not mention Iran. It said that Bush had determined that a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia “will advance the non-proliferation and other foreign policy interests of the United States”.

A 123 agreement, so-called because it falls under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, is required before countries can cooperate on nuclear materials, such as storing spent fuel, or work together on advanced nuclear reactor programs.

A resolution of disapproval blocking the agreement would need to pass Congress by a two-thirds vote, a steep climb. But Congress could also seek to attach conditions to the deal or block financing for its implementation, aides said.

The deal could also collapse if Congress does not stay in session for 90 more legislative days in this election year, one aide said. Congress has an August recess and is scheduled to go home at the end of September, but Congress almost never goes home on its targeted adjournment date.

Edtiing by Philip Barbara