Congressman Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, was evidently so confident that the enabling legislation he authored along with the ranking Democrat on the Committee, Congressman Tom Lantos of California, to implement the US-India civilian nuclear agreement was a 'slam dunk,' that almost simultaneously as the vote was being taken his aides were distributing his statement celebrating the victory of what he described as 'landmark legislation.'
By an overwhelming majority of 37-5, the 50-member committee approved the bill titled 'United States and India Cooperation Promotion Act' of 2006 that authorised the president to exempt the US-India nuclear cooperative agreement from statutory prohibitions, which would consequently clear the way for the transfer of civilian nuclear technology, including nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel to India.
The margin would have been even greater but for the fact that some lawmakers on the panel like Congressmen Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, had stepped out of the committee room at the time the vote was being taken for one reason or the other, but had earlier argued passionately in support of the legislation and the US-India nuclear deal and voted against the so-called 'killer amendments' that were introduced by the likes of Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both Democrats from California, who however, in the final vote, also endorsed the Hyde/Lantos legislation.
Essentially the legislation HR 5682 -- a modified version of HR 4974, introduced by Hyde and Lantos at the request of the administration -- would grant the president a series of waivers to existing law that would allow him to negotiate and submit to Congress for approval an agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with India.
The president must issue a series of determinations that India has met certain requirements, such as negotiation of a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, before he can exercise this authority.
It also requires continuing consultation with Congress and a number of reports that will enable Congress to remain fully informed of the ongoing negotiation and implementation of the agreement.
"The measure is an important step in transforming the strategic alliance of two of the oldest and largest democracies, while strengthening international security," Hyde declared.
"While the world has known that India possesses nuclear weapons, India has not had a seat at the table of nuclear stakeholders. This brings India into the mainstream with other accountable countries, giving rise to the same benefits and responsibilities as other such states," he said.
"The United States enjoys a close relationship with India, and we are only growing closer," Hyde added.
The respective 'killer' amendments introduced by Berman and Sherman that would require India to halt its production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and an annual certification by the president if the agreement were not to be terminated if the amount of domestic uranium used in India's military programme is equal to or less than the amount of domestic uranium used in India's military programme during the previous year after enactment of the deal, were roundly trounced by margins of 32-13 and 32-10 respectively with Hyde himself and Lantos leading the charge against them saying if adopted, these would be 'deal-breakers'.
A second amendment by Berman requiring the Nuclear Suppliers Group to block uranium exports to India if New Delhi did not halt its fissile material production was also thrashed by a margin of 31-12, and an amendment by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, California Democrat, that the legislation be approved only if India joins the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, received the biggest hammering being reduced to dust by a margin of 36-4.
At the outset of the mark-up of the legislation -- which stretched to a nearly marathon five hours, with Hyde apparently enjoying himself and allowing lawmakers to introduce as many amendments as they wanted to and then delighting in shooting down the 'killer'amendments -- in the committee's cavernous meeting room 2172 in Rayburn House Office Building, which was packed to capacity, Hyde said, "This new bill is based upon the administration's original proposal, but has been amended with several significant changes, the most prominent of which concerns the role of Congress."
He then admonished the administration, saying, "I must note at the outset that the original bill was conceived in a profoundly unsatisfactory matter in several respects. It would have granted the administration an unprecedented and sweeping freedom of action by waiving almost wholesale the existing laws regarding civil nuclear commerce with foreign countries, even as it reduced the role of Congress to a bare minimum. In effect, Congress was being asked to vote to remove itself from the process almost entirely and abandon its constitutional role."
Hyde said HR 5682, "changes the process by which Congress will consider and pass judgement on a negotiated agreement regarding civil nuclear cooperation with India," and explained "whereas in the administration's version, Congress would have been restricted to a relatively minor role of review and able to make its influence felt only with heroic effort, the new language restores its traditional role in these types of agreement. Once an agreement has been submitted to Congress, it must be approved by both Houses by means of an unamendable Joint Resolution of Approval in an up-or-down vote."
He said that "to open the door to amendments to a negotiated agreement would in effect be to render the process of negotiation untenable."
However Hyde warned, "That approval, is no means assured, so I would caution the administration to pay close attention to Congressional concerns."
Lantos in his opening remarks, describing the mark-up as "a historic hearing", that reminded him of the "opening to China in 1971", said, "the end of the Cold War liberated Indian foreign policy."
But he then just couldn't resist taking a swipe, saying, "It is not totally liberated because India to some extent occasionally still feels obligated to pay tribute to the so-called Non Aligned Movement, and just as I had difficulty understanding what the Non Aligned Movement meant during the Cold War, I have an even greater degree of difficulty understanding what the Non Aligned Movement means at a time when the civilised world is on one side and global terrorism and dictatorships are on the other."
"But be that as it may, we are about to see a sweeping strategic realignment of India's global policies for the 21st century, and we can facilitate that realignment," he said.
Lantos lauded India's "two critical votes" at the IAEA to isolate Iran for its nuclear weapons programme, "despite powerful domestic opposition, and even opposition within the Indian coalition."
He said the legislation being considered was "ground-breaking" and tailored US policy "to new global realities, advances our country's non-proliferation goals and reinforces the critical Congressional role of oversight of the executive branch."
Lantos also said that he was "very pleased by the bipartisan way in which we were able to bring this legislation about, with important contributions from colleagues on both sides of the aisle".
"This is a defining moment in our relationship with the great nation of India. After decades of disengagement punctuated with hostility, we now have an opportunity to achieve what will be a historic geo-strategic realignment of the world's largest democracy, India, with the world's oldest democracy, the United States," he declared.
Lantos argued that the nuclear deal "not only marks a geo-strategic realignment. It is also an unmistakable opportunity to advance our non-proliferation goals by rewarding a country that possesses nuclear technology, but has not used it to spread nuclear weapons capability around the globe (India has no A Q Khan). A country with positive bilateral relations with the United States that can serve, and I am convinced will serve, as a model for others. And it ensures that many nuclear facilities that are not under safeguards will be in the future as a result of this legislation."
He acknowledged that the bill however, "like any product of long and extended negotiations between two sovereign nations, will not please everyone in its entirety. The administration wanted Congress to approve the nuclear cooperation deal in advance, even though important elements of the accord have yet to be negotiated. We firmly rejected that request."
But Lantos too like Hyde reiterated that "Congress will be required to vote a second time before any nuclear cooperation with India can move forward. This second vote would take place only after Congress will have reviewed all of the details of the agreement for cooperation that are currently being negotiated, after India and the IAEA will have concluded a safeguards agreement and after the NSG will have acted to allow nuclear cooperation with India."
Among the five lawmakers who opposed the legislation, no one is more respected and considered one of the most cerebral members of the committee than Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, the secondmost senior Republican after Hyde, who while acknowledging that "this is a new day in US-India relations" also lamented that it is "also a sad day for arms control", because he believed the non-proliferation regime was being undermined.
Leach said the "nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is the lynchpin of all arms control treaties and we are making an exception for India", and warned, "once this agreement goes forward there will be a whole spectrum of countries that will make comparable claims. Affirmation of this agreement will be affirmation of other countries going the nuclear way."
And, as always, he said when the administration could have supported India's bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, which he would have gladly supported and so would have the majority of his colleagues, it had instead pushed for the deal that would gut the non-proliferation regime.
Leach said that even before the agreement was ratified by Congress, just its announcement had led Russia to offer to give India all of the nuclear technology it wants, and hence the US had already been pre-empted by Russia "and what we are doing is almost irrelevant".
Although offering no amendments, killer or otherwise, he said, "Anyone who wants to present this as a happy day is making a serious mistake. It undercuts the most important arms control treaty ever negotiated."