Senate Vote on U.S.-Indian Deal Delayed

Wade Boese

Despite the high priority attached by the Bush administration and New Delhi to a proposed U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear trade agreement, the Senate did not act on legislation advancing the deal before going into recess. But Senate leaders indicated they would take up the matter after the congressional elections in November.

President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed in July 2005 to a wholesale revision of approximately 30 years of acrimonious U.S.-Indian nuclear relations. Bush pledged to alter U.S. law and international rules governing civilian nuclear trade to accommodate India, which has nuclear weapons and has never signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, Singh committed to opening more of the Indian nuclear complex to international supervision. (See ACT, September 2005. ) The House passed legislation July 26 moving the United States closer toward the president’s goal. (See ACT, September 2006. )

The Senate, however, has not voted on a similar bill, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved June 29. Even if the Senate eventually passes the measure, the upper chamber must reconcile any differences between it and the lower chamber’s bill into a final measure for Bush to sign this year. If a final bill is not produced before the current Congress expires at the end of December, both chambers will need to start from scratch next year.

Several factors contributed to the Senate’s delay so far in taking up the legislation. In addition to debating and voting on other high-profile issues, such as the defense appropriations bill, some Republican lawmakers reportedly raised behind-the-scenes objections to an unrelated measure attached to the U.S.-India bill by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Panel Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and ranking member Joseph Biden (D-Del.) added to the bill implementing legislation for the United States to complete ratification and bring into force an additional protocol to the U.S. safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification of the measure in March 2004, but it cannot take effect until approval of implementing legislation authorizing the president to decree regulations permitting new IAEA activities inside the United States.

An additional protocol is a voluntary bilateral instrument providing the IAEA with greater authority to discover any illicit nuclear weapons activities inside a country. The United States signed an additional protocol in June 1998 to underscore its commitment to stemming the spread of nuclear arms and show non-nuclear-weapon states that concluding an additional protocol “will not adversely affect legitimate, transparent, and peaceful nuclear energy development,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported in April 2006.

Because the United States already possesses nuclear arms, its additional protocol is essentially symbolic. Indeed, in its April report on the implementing legislation, the panel noted the additional protocol “will not likely result in additional inspections in the United States.” Washington also reserves the right to deny and restrict for national security reasons IAEA inspections and environmental sampling.

Nonetheless, some Republican lawmakers reportedly put a secret hold on the U.S.-Indian deal legislation because of concerns about the additional protocol implementing legislation. A hold is a common practice enabling senators to signal opposition to a particular measure and to tie up future action on it unless concerns are resolved. Lawmakers reportedly resolved their differences on the implementing legislation at the end of September. However, the back and forth on the additional protocol delayed the finalization of a unanimous consent agreement by which the Senate agrees to a specific amount of time and certain number of amendments to be considered during debate on a particular bill.

Meanwhile, India declined offers in September by U.S. negotiators to fly to New Delhi to continue talks toward completing the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, also known as a 123 agreement. The Singh government also has not initiated formal talks with the IAEA on safeguards, which are measures that India has agreed to apply to the civilian sector of its nuclear enterprise to help assure foreign suppliers that their civilian nuclear trade will not flow to the military sector. New Delhi has repeatedly stated that Washington must change U.S. law before India takes steps to fulfill its side of the deal.

Singh, opposition politicians, and the Indian nuclear establishment have already protested that the House-passed bill and the draft Senate bill include provisions inimical to India. (See ACT, September 2006. ) In an interview published in the Sept. 23-Oct. 6 issue of the Indian magazine Frontline, Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar said India should “wait for the outcome of the U.S. legislative process” before determining how to proceed on the deal.