Ambassador Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state and chief US negotiator of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, is not overly concerned over the Nuclear Suppliers Group's lukewarm response to the US pitch for support of the deal and refusal to include it on the agenda of its board of governors meeting in late May.
Burns, also expressed confidence that more lawmakers -- compared to the handful as of now -- would co-sponsor the legislation introduced by Senator Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, at the request of President George W Bush calling on Congress to amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 with a India-specific exemption in order to consummate the deal.
He predicted that several lawmakers would co-sponsor both the Senate and House bills once Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies April 5 and 6 respectively, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee and answers lawmakers' questions regarding their concerns over the deal and convinces them the agreement is very much in America's national security interests as well as a net gain for strengthening the nonproliferation regime.
Following a speech he delivered to members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, as part of his continuing blitzkrieg to build up a critical mass of support for the deal, Burns during the question and answer session, said, "We are going to wait until the Congress acts before we formally ask the Nuclear Suppliers Group to take commensurate action."
"So the reason why the India issue is not on the agenda of the board meeting for late May is because we are not quite sure when Congress is going to act. But you can call the members of the NSG at any time. So if we miss the late May board meeting , you can call a meeting in July or August. So that's not an insurmountable area to us," he explained.
Burns also claimed there are about 11 or 12 co-sponsors of the Senate bill introduced by Senator Lugar "and a number of members in the House have come out with public statements to support the legislation".
He said the "attitude in Congress -- as I understood it -- and the attitude in the NSG, but certainly in the Congress and most members with whom I've talked, is that they want to hear the testimony of Secretary Rice and they want to have a chance to ask questions."
Burns also speculated that "it maybe that members of the Senate and House want to give some of their ideas of how the agreement can be strengthened," and noted that what the administration has told lawmakers is that "we are open to any idea as long as it doesn't require us to go back and re-open this."
"It's such a complex deal and we probably never will be able to put it back together," he asserted.
"If members of Congress have ideas that would not be deal-breakers or require us to re-negotiate and if they think and we think these ideas can strengthen the arrangement, we are open to it," Burns said.
He disclosed, "In fact, in some of our private sessions I've had with about 20 members of the Senate individually, some members of the Senate have given us ideas, which I think are very attractive."
Thus, he predicted, "What we are going to see is a fairly dynamic debate on the Hill where there will be testimony in the Senate, testimony in the House, Congress will offer some ideas and we hope that at some point in the next month or two and probably more likely in May or June, we are going to see a vote and hope that vote will be positive."
Asked if the administration in being receptive to ideas from some members of Congress wouldn't necessarily have to clear these ideas with the Indian government, Burns said, "Yes,of course. We would go to the government of India and say, 'Look, here are some ideas, they aren't deal-breakers, they are not conditions in the deal-breaker fashion.'"
As to how the administration would work this in, Burns, who along with Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Bob Joseph, will provide a classified briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 29, said, "I assume what we will do if these ideas come along, we'll simply brief the Indian governmemt. This happens all the time in the American system -- this is normal in our Constitutional system."
Meanwhile, Burns acknowledged that with regard to the US-India bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran is coming this week to nail down, a draft of the accord had already been provided to Congress because there was interest among lawmakers about what's in it, and that they need to see it before any vote on the deal.
Asked if this bilateral cooperation agreement is an 'evolving draft,' Burns said, "It's a basic construct. It reflects the agreement we've already made. So there's no new ground being broken. It's a technical agreement that reflects the decisions that have already been made by both countries -- and I've already briefed most members of Congress on what is in it and we are happy to share it with staff."
Burns said he had "already presented the draft to Shyam," but said there would be no formal signing of this agreement during Saran's visit to Washington March 28 through 31.