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US House of Representatives OKs nuclear deal

Sridhar Krishnaswami in Washington, DC | September 28, 2008 10:38 IST

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Complete coverage: The Indo-US nuclear deal
After a lot of drama and suspense, the United States House of Representatives on Saturday night passed the Bill on the Indo-US nuclear deal with bi-partisan support, but a considerable number of Democrats were still opposed to it.

The Berman Bill H R 7081, named after Howard Berman, a Democrat strongly opposed to the deal on non-proliferation grounds and who converted only a couple of days back, was adopted with 298 voting for and 117 against. One lawmaker merely voted present.

In a house of 435 members, 416 were represent in which one did not vote.

While 120 Democrats voted for the Bill, 107 Democrats voted against. Of the Republicans, 178 voted for and 10 voted against.

The deal just needs the backing of the Senate which may vote next week on the issue. But the Senate vote is already a foregone conclusion given the fact that an identical Bill has already been approved by its Foreign Relations Committee earlier last week.

Though a Congressional consent eluded the deal when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] and US President George Bush [Images] when they met on Thursday, the House approval came hours before the prime minister left the US shores winding up his five-day visit on his way to France [Images].

South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson, one of the strongest supporters of the legislation and the agreement, hailed the vote saying it moved the US one step forward in strengthening the partnership with people of India.

Despite the US Congress being busy in the midst of clearance of a package for the financial institutions gone  bankrupt, the House met unusually on a Saturday for conducting business.

The vote on the nuclear Bill was on Thursday yesterday after another opponent Ed Markey demanded a recorded vote instead of a voice vote after the debate was completed.

Berman had originally introduced a Bill that was slightly different from the measure approved by the Senate Committee and adoption of it would have delayed implementation of the nuclear deal.

Once the Senate adopts the Bill, it would be ready for signing between the two countries. Already Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice [Images] has planned a trip to Delhi [Images] on October 3 when she may ink the agreement with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a feat that Singh and Bush could not achieve on Thursday.

Berman was talked to by Rice after which he withdrew his original Bill and introduced a legislation identical to the Senate Committee that ensured its quick passage.

Joe Wilson said he was grateful to President Bush, Prime Minister Singh and Rice for their steadfast support in seeing this agreement implemented.

Earlier, the House completed a lively debate that saw Markey putting up a stiff opposition to the deal with India.

However, in the Senate, an anonymous lawmaker put a "hold" on consideration of the bill which must be lifted before the agreement is brought to the Senate floor or approved by a unanimous consent agreement.

The latest hiccup in the Senate is actually a counter to the attempt of the leadership to "hotline" the Senate Bill through unanimous consent without debate and vote.

The schedule of the Senate is still fluid but it is meeting on Sunday and re-convening on Wednesday after taking a break on Monday and Tuesday on account of Jewish holidays.

Opening the debate in the House, Berman said he continued to have concerns about ambiguities in the Indo-US agreement and sought unanimous consent to insert several documents into the record to clarify certain "issues".

"It is my view that ... this bill also gives the right to disapprove a presidential decision to resume civil nuclear cooperation with any country, not just India, that tests a nuclear weapon.

"It will also ensure that India takes the necessary remaining steps to bring its IAEA safeguards agreement fully into force and include an additional protocol," said the senior Democrat, who has long been a critic of the US-India nuclear agreement on non-proliferation grounds.

"I will be voting for HR7081 (bill)," said Berman, who had recently released a letter of the Administration to him that spoke of ceasing US cooperation on fuel supplies in case of India conducting a test.

The top opponent of the Berman bill, Massachussetts Democrat Markey took a final swing at the civil nuclear agreement questioning not only the judgement of the Bush Administration in going for the deal but also the non-proliferation gains.

"Flashing a green light to India sends a dangerous signal to all of those countries because these policies are interconnected," he said, noting that it was not a debate on India but on Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Venezuela or about any other country in the world that harbours the goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Markey, who insisted on a recorded roll call vote on the bill, said "with this vote we are shattering the non-proliferation rules and the next three countries to march through the broken glass will be Iran, North Korea and Pakistan and there are others with their nose set up against the window getting ready as well."

He wanted to know whether Pakistan would just watch India ramp up it nuclear weapons production and do nothing.

"Pakistan will respond. Pakistan warned us this summer that this deal, and I quote, threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race. Right now, according to non- proliferation experts, Pakistan is building two new reactors to dramatically increase its nuclear weapons production."

He said the first of these new reactors could come online within a year. Pakistan was essentially telling India that they were in this game too and they would match India step for step.

"This is an all-out nuclear arms race. That is what President Bush should be working on, not fuelling it but trying to negotiate an end to it," Markey said.

Yet another Democrat from California, Lynn Woolsey, rose in opposition to the US-India agreement and the Berman bill.

"... By approving this nuclear agreement, an agreement with India, we will permanently and irrevocably undermine decades of non-proliferation efforts.

"This agreement says that India, but no other country, can live outside the international nuclear controls system. It sets a frightening precedent. If a country is unhappy about the rules of nuclear possession, it can simply go around them, breaking them," Woolsey maintained.

"And what does it matter India ignored international agreements? Any sanction? Any punishment? Nope. Just a lucrative deal with the United States of America. If we approve this deal, we lose our moral high ground," she added.

Republican sources are confident that the legislation in the Senate will move and have quickly distanced themselves as being the party of the "hold".

In fact without mentioning any names, many are quietly pointing to those lawmakers in the Senate who have in one fashion or another opposed the civilian nuclear legislation.

In 2006, during the time of the voting on the Hyde Act, 12 Senators opposed the Act.

On September 23 this year at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Mark Up, two Senators opposed moving the Senate version of the Bill of Approval to the Floor while four voted for the Feingold Amendment that essentially called on the Bush Administration to strike an agreement with NSG that there will not be transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology to any country which is not a party to the NPT.

The 12 Senators who opposed the Hyde Act were all Democrats; the two Senators who opposed the moving of the bill of approval to the Senate Floor were also Democrats and the four lawmakers on the Senate panel who backed the Feingold Amendment were Democrats too.

"The Senate leadership will have to resolve this," quipped a source well versed with the goings-on.

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