The House unanimously adopted several measures yesterday aimed at protecting the Energy Department's nuclear weapons programs. The 428 to 0 vote was the first official congressional response to a yearlong probe into Chinese espionage at weapons laboratories.
The package addresses 26 of 38 recommendations issued by a select panel headed by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.). The provisions, which were attached to a broader Defense Department authorization bill, tighten security and counterintelligence at U.S. weapons labs, bolster export controls and call on the administration to consider transferring the nation's nuclear weapons programs outside the Energy Department.
Although President Clinton had indicated he did not want the committee's recommendations codified into law, passage of the bill will have that effect. The president is not expected to veto the defense bill if the Senate incorporates the provisions.
"The question is will these reforms be institutionalized," Cox said at a news conference after the vote. "By putting these things into legislation, they can be institutionalized."
The vote came two weeks after a House select committee released a 700-page report concluding that China has stolen design secrets on the most advanced U.S. thermonuclear weapons and used them to develop miniaturized warheads and a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could be tested this year.
The committee's findings on Chinese espionage at the weapons labs, leaked earlier this year, triggered rancorous debate over the past three months and almost surely will have important repercussions on U.S.-China relations. Beyond the amendments adopted yesterday, renewal of China's "normal trade relations" status is expected to come before Congress this summer, and congressional opposition could help delay or forestall China's admission into the World Trade Organization.
But yesterday's House debate was relatively calm. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said administration and congressional officials had condoned allowing foreigners to work in U.S. nuclear laboratories for years. "Shame on us," Foley said. "Shame of us for having lax security."
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson praised the House for not attaching controversial provisions that could have scuttled the bill.
"We won every battle today in the House," Richardson said after the vote, noting that the Clinton administration had marshaled substantial Democratic support for the Cox-Dicks amendments and had helped defeat a measure offered by Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on visits to U.S. weapons laboratories by scientists from China and other "sensitive" nations.
Richardson said administration opposition also helped block consideration of what officials regarded as an even more onerous amendment offered by Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) that would have transferred all nuclear weapons programs from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense.
"We think that would be a horrendous amendment," Richardson said.
Ryun proposed that the House take "decisive action" to end the practice of allowing foreign visitors access to national labs, but his amendment failed by a vote of 159 to 266.
Instead, the broader Cox-Dicks package calls for a two-month moratorium while the Energy Department certifies that it has safeguards in place to prevent leaks of classified information. The package also exempts visitors who are here under the auspices of international agreements.
Richardson, who noted that the Cox-Dicks amendments would codify many of the security and counterintelligence reforms his department has worked to implement since Clinton ordered the changes in February 1998, said he hopes the administration can modify the two-month moratorium on foreign visitors.
"There's fear that the two-month moratorium would disrupt the international scientific program," Richardson said. "Once foreign scientists leave, they may not come back."
The Cox-Dicks measures also call for the establishment of a comprehensive polygraph program at the Energy Department, require the round-the-clock presence of Pentagon monitors at all overseas satellite launches and establish an interagency procedure for reviewing the export of high-priority, controlled technology.
Cox and Dicks said they hope to push for a reauthorization of the Export Administration Act, whose criminal penalties have lapsed, as well as for an expanded domestic launch capacity so that the United States would not be as dependent on countries such as China for launching its commercial satellites.
Congress is slated to continue voting on the $289 billion defense authorization bill today, with lawmakers preparing to debate the more contentious question of whether Congress should cut off all funding for the U.S. mission in Kosovo after Sept. 30.
CAPTION: Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) urges intelligence panel to reorganize security at Department of Energy.
CAPTION: To Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, the House's acceptance of the Cox-Dicks amendments was a victory for the administration, which had marshaled the support of Democrats. "We won every battle today in the House," he said.