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U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal Simmers

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Wade Boese

The Bush administration is urging lawmakers to quickly give their approval to a U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation proposal, but some legislators are expressing reservations about the pace and scope of the deal.

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed last July to revive U.S. civilian nuclear trade with nuclear-armed India after a three-decade hiatus. Yet, many aspects of the deal remain unsettled. (See "Bush, Singh Advance Nuclear Deal," April 2006.)

On May 25, New Delhi provided Washington with India’s version of a bilateral cooperation agreement setting out the two sides’ obligations. Details of India’s draft were not yet available at press time, but preliminary Indian media reports suggest it does not include a provision triggering the deal’s termination if India conducts a nuclear test. A U.S. draft agreement, given March 14 to India, contained a clause to that effect.

Despite the incomplete status of the bilateral cooperation agreement, the Bush administration wants lawmakers to essentially permit a completed agreement to enter into force after 90 days unless two-thirds of both chambers of Congress object. This approach differs from current U.S. law, which would require a majority approval from both chambers.

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), charge that the administration’s approach makes it nearly impossible for Congress to stop the agreement even if there are serious objections to its contents. Berman proposed an alternative bill May 19 requiring that India meet certain conditions, such as halting the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons, to be eligible for future U.S. nuclear trade.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House International Relations Committee and a supporter of the deal, said at a May 11 panel hearing that the administration-backed legislation, if pressed to a vote soon, would “get a negative response from the Congress.” Lantos proposed that Congress wait until the bilateral cooperation agreement is finalized and India concludes safeguards negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency before using “expedited procedures to assure an up or down vote on the [deal].” Safeguards are supposed to help prevent the misuse of civilian nuclear technology for bombs.

Still, administration officials say they are optimistic that their preferred legislation will triumph. But they are also eager for Congress to act before July when lawmakers, particularly in the House, will start to turn their attention to winning re-election in November.