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Home > News > Report

Democrats could delay or kill nuclear deal

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC | November 07, 2006 17:46 IST

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The Bush administration has its own worries about the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Till recently it had been very optimistic the US Senate would take up the enabling legislation to facilitate the US-India civilian nuclear agreement when Congress reconvenes after the November 7 Congressional elections, for a session expected to last three weeks at best.

But officials who have been pushing for the legislation to be taken up ever since the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it overwhelmingly by a vote of 16-2 in July realise the composition of the Congress could change dramatically. If the Republicans lose their majority, emboldened Democrats could delay or even kill the bill in this Congressional session. It could even become hard to resurrect it, given that President George W Bush's political capital would be at a new low, making it hard for him to push through any meaningful legislation.

At a roundtable with the Washington-based Indian media at the State Department last week, Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state and the chief US negotiator of the nuclear deal, reiterated his satisfaction at the bipartisan -- and public -- support for the agreement.

But he acknowledged it was up to the Senate leadership to schedule a vote and that he should not be giving them advice on the details.

It was pointed out that the administration's confidence seemed misplaced. The short time available is not enough to act on the legislation, for a conference committee to agree on compromise legislation that reconciled both the House and Senate bills, and to send the final product to the President for his signature.

"We hope they will reschedule it," Burns said. It was pointed out that given that the Senate had not taken up the matter in the three months before the recess, what could prompt them to do so in less than three weeks of the November session. Burns responded a little defensively.

"We ought to have some sympathy with the fact that Congress has had a very busy schedule. We are just hoping that when they do come back, this is going to be voted on. We believe this is one of our highest priorities in our foreign policy," he said, adding that it was, in many ways, "the symbolic center of this new strategic relationship between India and the United States."

Burns said the Nuclear Suppliers Group would have a major say in whether the rest of the world agreed that India should be treated differently from other nuclear states. But he said the administration was encouraged after a 'very effective' presentation before the NSG by the Indian government.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an address at the Heritage Foundation, said that signing the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India was one of the most tangible steps the administration had taken in recent times to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.

"The United States and our partners are joining together to preserve the continued vitality of the global regime to prevent and counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," she said. "The non-proliferation regime is now under more strain than at any time since it was established over 40 years ago."

Rice said Washington hoped to strengthen and renew it making India part of the non-proliferation regime. While it gave India better access to civilian nuclear power, it would also give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to those plants.

When Burns was pressed about what could happen if there was a political change of guard, particularly of committee chairmen, after the Congressional elections, he said he would not answer hypothetical questions.

But he said that he still believed bipartisan support for the civilian nuclear deal would continue into 2007, regardless of the vagaries of politics. "I think most members of Congress agree with us this is a very important element in our new strategic partnership," he said.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading Washington think tank that has two of the most prominent strategic experts on the subject, Ashley Tellis and George Perkovich -- who favor and reject it, respectively -- noted that the Indian lobby, the public relations firms the Indian government hired, and the US-India Business Council "are leaving no stone unturned," in pushing for the deal, which "is not surprising because by some accounts, the stakes are as high as $80-100 billion for US businesses."

It also saw the deal as "a litmus test for the Indian-American lobby, especially since their influence over legislators is likely to be diminished in the post-elections period."

But if the bill is not taken up in November, it will have to go through the entire process again, starting with the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees. "This it something India definitely wants to avoid," it said, "given the fact that the Democrats might gain control of the House and maybe even the Senate after the November elections."

If the deal was not taken up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "might be forced to pull out from the deal, given the promises extracted from him by domestic Opposition parties and the scientific community that the final deal would adhere strictly to the July 2005 and March 2006 agreements."

But the think tank advised that backing out of the deal was probably not India's best option. Any nuclear cooperation deal "will be better than no deal, because it could open up the arena for similar, probably less restrictive deals between India and other NSG member countries," it said.

Changes in NSG rules would allow countries like France and Russia to offer India the latest civilian nuclear energy technology and others, such as South Africa, to provide it with nuclear fuel, it added.

Karl F Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration, told rediff India Abroad that even if the deal is not cleared in the November session and the whole process had to start again, it would not be the end of the deal.

"It would be square one, but a more educated square one," Inderfurth said, "because a lot of the educational work that has gone into this will certainly carry over to a new Congress."

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