N-deal clears first hurdle; Congress to approve in two-vote process

Washington, June 28 (IANS) The India-US nuclear deal cleared its first hurdle Tuesday with a key committee of the US Congress approving a 'historic' bipartisan bill that gives the go-ahead to the Bush administration, but also requires it to submit the final agreement for Congressional approval in a second vote later.

The 'landmark' measure approved by the International Committee of the House of Representatives by a 37-5 margin also requires the Bush administration to keep the Congress fully informed about the ongoing negotiations with India about a formal peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement and its implementation.

To ensure broader bipartisan support for the legislation, Republican chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois and Tom Lantos of California, the leading Democrat, presented an altogether new bill reflecting the consensus of the Congress to keep it safe from 'killer' amendments that would have required a return to the negotiating table.

The bill was finally approved after a marathon four-hour debate after rejecting seven deal-breaker amendments and incorporating three others having no bearing on the operational aspects of the India-US nuclear agreement. These relate to reporting of the categorisation of new nuclear reactors or facilities as civilian or military by India, disposal of spent nuclear fuel and prohibition of transfer to US of spent fuel generated in India's civilian nuclear reactors.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee is expected to approve a similar bill prepared by Republican Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana and Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware on Thursday just before Congress goes for a ten-day recess.

The House and Senate versions are not expected to differ substantially in the operational part, as the heads of the two panels who have both extended critical support to the deal are reported to have been in touch with each other.

The Congress itself is expected to vote on the bills sometime in July. If the two houses do differ in the operative parts, they would have to be reconciled before the nuclear deal finally gets back on the president's table to sign into a law.

Hyde. who played a key role with Lantos in building a consensus around the Bill, described the measure 'as an important step in transforming the strategic alliance of two of the oldest and largest democracies, while strengthening international security.'

'While the world has known that India possesses nuclear weapons, India has not had a seat at the table of nuclear stakeholders. This brings India into the mainstream with other accountable countries, giving rise to the same benefits and responsibilities as other such states,' he said.

Lantos, on his part, described the legislation as a historic move like the one United States made in opening to China in 1971, noting its importance in terms of the impact on 'the new geo-strategic alignment between India and the United States for the balance of the 21st century, cannot be overstated.'

The legislation was indeed India specific, he said, in the sense that there is no other country which is democratic, has a population of 1.1 billion and wants to build a closer relationship with the United States.

'India is unique, and this legislation is, in a very fundamental sense, unique.'

Lantos said the deal also presented an unmistakeable opportunity to advance America's non-proliferation goals by rewarding a country that has nuclear weapons capability but has not used it to spread nuclear weapons capability around the globe.

'India has no A. Q. Khan,' he noted in a reference to the Pakistani nuclear scientist who is said to have opened a nuclear 'Walmart' for anyone willing to pay the price.

In the course of the debate, responding to a demand from Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California that India be asked to halt fissile material production, Lantos said India's energy situation should not be used to 'extort' such a decision. 'That choice must be made by New Delhi' based on its assessment of national security.

Entitled the 'United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006,' the House legislation would grant the president a series of waivers to existing law after making several determinations that India has met a set of specified requirements, including negotiation of a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It also requires continuing consultation with Congress and a number of reports that will enable Congress to remain fully informed of the ongoing negotiation and implementation of the agreement.

As the House panel opened its session, Hyde explained he had brought forward a new bill instead of merely fine tuning the one he and Lantos had introduced last March because the original bill 'conceived in a profoundly unsatisfactory manner' would have granted the administration an unprecedented and sweeping freedom of action.

In effect, Congress was being asked to vote to remove itself from the process almost entirely and abandon its constitutional role, he said, noting the new bill changes the process by which Congress will consider and pass judgment on a negotiated agreement regarding civil nuclear cooperation with India.

He said the new bill restores Congress' traditional role in these types of agreement.

However, Hyde cautioned that to open the door to amendments to a negotiated agreement would in effect be to render the process of negotiation untenable. That approval, however, is by no means assured, he said in a balancing act.

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