Thu Jan 19, 2006 8:57 PM ET
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American companies are mounting a multimillion-dollar campaign to sell to Congress a landmark civilian nuclear deal with India which promises a "bounty of opportunity" for U.S. business and strategic interests, an organizer said on Thursday.
The lobbying drive is the most expensive ever mounted by business, said Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He did not specify the campaign's budget.
He said retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman, a former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point now working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will coordinate a broad effort as the Coalition for Partnership with India that groups businesses, think tanks and academics supporting the deal.
This will complement the U.S.-India Business Council, which has engaged the politically well-connected Patton Boggs law firm to lobby lawmakers, Somers told Reuters in an interview.
The high-powered campaign reflects both the importance of the nuclear agreement and the high hurdles it faces in Congress, Somers said.
Some members of Congress and experts worry the deal clinched in July undermines U.S. efforts to stop the spread of nuclear arms.
Somers said the agreement could open the door for U.S. companies to billions of dollars in non-nuclear as well as civilian nuclear-related contracts.
"It's going to unleash a bounty of opportunity that is even beyond commercial measure," including strengthening nonproliferation goals, he said.
For 30 years, the United States led the effort to deny India nuclear technology because it tested and developed nuclear weapons in contravention of international norms. Both India and its neighbor and nuclear-armed rival Pakistan have refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
EVOLVING U.S. ALLY
But U.S. President George W. Bush now views India, a rising democratic and economic power on China's border, as an evolving U.S. ally and the new nuclear deal -- allowing India to purchase nuclear reactors and fuel -- is central to that vision.
Somers spoke as Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was visiting New Delhi for talks that were expected to show progress on the nuclear deal in advance of Bush's visit to India in late February or early March.
Burns' focus was a plan to put India's civilian nuclear power plants under international monitoring, while weapons-related facilities would remain off-limits.
This separation plan -- the heart of the nuclear deal -- aims to ensure U.S. nuclear technology is never used for military purposes and in theory would make the civilian facilities less susceptible to proliferation.
"We believe the Congress needs to hear that industry is interested in this (nuclear) initiative ... We have been waiting for the administration to provide the signal that the separation agreement is going on well and that it would be (put) behind us," Somers said.
India, for its part, has retained the Barbour Griffiths Rogers lobbying firm of former U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, Robert Blackwill, to push the deal. His former aide, Ashley Tellis, has taken a leave from a Washington think tank to work on the deal at the State Department. Both men are leading advocates of closer U.S. ties with India.