Even as the House International Relations Committee that had scheduled a mark-up of the Bush administration's legislation to implement the US-India civilian nuclear agreement for Wednesday postponed this process by a week, dealing a blow to the administration's hopes to have it reported out for floor action by the full House, an influential member of the panel introduced a bill with several conditions that could at worst scuttle the deal and at best delay approval of the accord.
Congressman Howard Berman of California, the second seniormost Democrat on the committee after Congressman Tom Lantos, also of California, introduced legislation -- HR 5430 -- which he said is "country-neutral because I thought that's more defensible than the India-specific approach," of the administration bill.
In an interaction with a few reporters at a briefing arranged by the Arms Control Association, headed by Daryl Kimball, which has taken the lead in opposing the US-India deal, Berman said that his legislation "sets a number of conditions for nuclear cooperation", with India, "including most importantly, a halt to the production of fissile material and it would correct what I would consider to be a fuindamental flaw in the administration's legislative proposal -- depriving Congress of a simple up and down vote once the actual nuclear cooperation agreement has been negotiated."
India has said any conditions of the carefully negotiated agreement that took nearly a year, would be a 'non-starter,' and the administration has warned that amendments such as those calling for a halt to fissile material production by India would be deal-breakers.
Berman's other requirements in his legislation also called for the safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency be not just India-specific, "but consistent with standard IAEA practices -- that it doesn't deviate from those fundamental positions that the IAEA requires in its framework and safeguards agreements."
The lawmaker also said, "I want to maintain provisions in current law that require termination of nuclear cooperation if India tests a nuclear weapon or violates IAEA safeguards, and I want to prohibit the president from helping India receive nuclear materials or technology from other countries if those transfers would be illegal under US law."
Berman acknowledged that he did not believe his bill "would be the vehicle for moving forward with the India deal, but I introduced it to help generate debate on some key issues."
He warned, however, if the bill being prepared by Congressman Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, and chairman of the Committee -- which Congressional sources have told rediff India Abroad may also contain some conditions that may not be palatable to the administration and India -- "doesn't address some of my key concerns, I am planning to offer some amendments at the mark-up."
Earlier, Berman -- a longtime member of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans -- reiterated, "I am a very strong believer in the importance of deepening our strategic partnership with India, and in the jargon of Capitol Hill, I consider myself passionately pro-India."
"I am also a realist. India has nuclear weapons and we are not going to change that fact," he added. "Therefore, we have to move ahead understanding that that is a condition, which is going to exist for the indefinite future."
Berman also said he is "not opposed in any fashion to the appropriate nuclear cooperation agreement for nuclear energy purposes with India. I think that might make some sense and I am quite happy to see that happen."
But he argued, "I do have serious concerns about the deal that was negotiated by the administration," and challenged the administration's assertion that it is a "strong net-plus for non-proliferation".
"If we are going to change long-established rules on nuclear trade for one country -- even a friend of the United States like India -- there has to be a compelling non-proliferation gain on the other side," he said. "Otherwise, I fear that we are risking the unravelling of the entire non-proliferation regime," he added.