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Vote a remarkable victory: Senator Lugar
Aziz Haniffa in Washington | June 30, 2006 03:57 IST
Senator Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who shepherded legislation on Thursday to facilitate the US-India civilian nuclear agreement by a rollicking margin of 16-2, has described the Committee's vote as 'a remarkable victory for India and the United States'.
The Senate Committee's vote followed the overwhelming 37-5 vote by the House International Relations Committee on Tuesday on similar legislation.
In an exclusive interview with rediff.com, minutes after the vote, a beaming Lugar said the overwhelming vote in favor of the legislation that he authored with the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, would definitely 'send a strong message' to the full Senate that is expected to debate the bill on the floor next month, and predicted, "I believe we will have strong support on the floor."
During the mark-up, all of the members of the Committee, including the two dissenters, Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, lauded Lugar repeatedly for his 'skillful leadership', and for 'doing a great job', in the way he had crafted it, and for 'giving us a great product'.
Asked how he felt about all of the kudos showered on him, Lugar, one of the most respected and cerebral lawmakers on Capitol Hill and an uncompromising and fierce advocate of nonproliferation, with his legendary humility, said, "Through great cooperation with Senator Biden and the two staffs who did really the strong work along with members of the Administration. There was negotiation, there was harmony and there is now a great bill."
He acknowledged that there wasn't any major differences between the House bill authored by Congressmen Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee and the ranking Democrat, Tom Lantos of California with his bill, and hence expressed confidence that if the respective bills are approved by both Houses, there shouldn't be any problem in reconciling both bills in conference (where select members of both the House and Senate meet to iron out any differences and produce one conference report) 'and sending the conference report after it is passed by both Houses to the President to be signed into law'.
Lugar said why he was so confident that both bills could be reconciled without any problem was because 'we've been consulting with Chairman Hyde and the ranking member Tom Lantos. So it was not a surprise that we are on the same track'.
He said this was the reason why both bills looked quite identical -- except for the non-operative part of the Senate bill not containing the provision found in the non-operative part of the House bill that seeks India's 'full and active' participation in Washington's efforts to halt Iran's drive toward developing nuclear weapons.
Congressional sources said that it's likely that in conference, the Senate may agree to insert this into the final joint bill because of the strong views lawmakers have on Iran, and since it has no trigger mechanism that could terminate the deal even if India continues its close relationship with Iran, both the Administration and India would be able to live with it.
Asked by rediff India Abroad if it's possible the legislation can be voted on by the full Senate before the summer recess that will be immediately followed by the November Congressional elections, Lugar said, 'That depends on the leadership of the Senate - both majority and minority has to give us the time on the floor', and he noted that 'we will be in competition with many other objectives of both parties'.
"But my hope is that we can move on this as rapidly as possible," he said, but reiterated, "The leadership will have to consider all of the other legislative objectives and priorities of the country and as I said, all of this will depend on the leadership and the determination they make as to when they can fit us in."
Lugar said, "And, by leadership, I mean not just Majority Leader Senator (Bill) Frist, (Tennessee Republican), but also Minority Leader Senator (Harry) Reid (Nevada Democrat). There will have to be bipartisan cooperation."
He pointed out that 'as you know, after we return from our July 4 recess (Congress reconvenes on July 11), we don't have much time - only about four weeks - before the long summer recess'.
"So we'll have to get it done during this interim period and as I said my hope would be that we can move on this as rapidly as we can and hopefully the leadership will give us support and cooperation to get this great bill signed into law," he added.
Earlier, in his opening remarks in convening the mark-up, Lugar said that the US-India civilian nuclear agreement is the most important strategic diplomatic initiative of the Bush presidency.
He said the President 'by concluding this pact and the far-reaching set of cooperative agreements that accompany it', had embraced 'a long-term outlook that seeks to enhance the core strength of our foreign policy in a way that will give us new diplomatic options and improve global stability'.
He said the deal that would allow India to receive nuclear fuel, technology, and reactors from the United States, benefits that were previously denied to it because of its status outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and expressed confidence that it would not undercut America's responsibilities under the NPT.
Instead, Lugar predicted that the deal 'can be a lasting incentive for India to abstain from further nuclear weapons tests and to cooperate closely with the United States in stopping proliferation'.
"We have already seen strategic benefits from our improving relationship with India," he said, and pointed out that 'India's votes at the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) on the Iran issue last September and this past February demonstrate that New Delhi is able and willing to adjust its traditional foreign policies and play a constructive role in international issues'.
Lugar said the bill he has authored along with Biden 'is an important step toward implementing the nuclear agreement with India'.
However, as Congressman Henry Hyde,Illinois Republican, who chairs the House International Relations Committee had warned on Tuesday, Lugar too said, "We should understand that it is not the final step in the process."
He explained that like the Hyde/Lantos bill that has been reported to action on the House floor, the Lugar/Biden bill too only 'sets the rules for subsequent Congressional consideration of a so-called 123 Agreement between the US and India'.
The Lugar/Biden bill, also like the Hyde/Lantos bill preserves Congress' prerogatives with regard to the 123 Agreement, whereas the Administration's original proposal had the 123 Agreement entering into force 90 days after submission unless both Houses of Congress voted against it and then overcame a likely Presidential veto.
Lugar said, "I am pleased the Administration changed course on this matter and agreed to submit the 123 Agreement with India to Congress under normal procedures. This means that both the House and the Senate must cast a positive vote of support before the 123 Agreement can enter into force. In our view, this fully protects Congress' role in the process and ensures Congressional views will be taken into consideration'.
Lugar said the US-India agreement had resulted from a delicately balanced negotiation and acknowledged that 'neither side got everything it wanted. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration and the Indian government came to the conclusion that the agreement was in the national security interests of both countries'.
"I agree with this assessment," he said and then urged his colleagues in the Committee to vote in favor of the legislation 'without conditions that would kill the agreement', because he and Biden and their staffs had 'constructed a bill that allows us to seize an important strategic opportunity, while ensuring a strong Congressional oversight role and reinforcing US nonproliferation efforts'.