By Roxana Tiron - June 8, 2006
The independent Council on Foreign Relations is urging Congress to endorse a controversial civilian nuclear-power deal between the United States and India as soon as possible.
The council, in a report released Wednesday, recommends that lawmakers in both chambers pass sense-of-Congress resolutions supporting the basic framework and delay final approval until they are assured critical nuclear nonproliferation needs are met.
President Bush announced the nuclear deal during a trip to India in March, but the idea has been in the works since last summer. The agreement would allow India to import U.S. nuclear technology in exchange for opening its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspections. India’s nuclear-weapons program would remain secret.
The administration wants Congress to pass amendments to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that would give India specific waivers. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would gain access to India’s civilian nuclear program. India would place two-thirds of its reactors and two-thirds of its generating power under permanent safeguards, with international verification.
But changes to the 1954 act are no small task, congressional sources say.
“The Atomic Energy Act is something you do not change lightly,” one aide said, adding, “nonproliferation policy is important.”
The council’s report comes at a time when supporters of the nuclear deal fear that changes in legislation required to implement it could be delayed during a packed pre-election calendar.
If Congress does not approve the deal, “it would damage the bilateral relationship,” the council concluded.
The Bush administration is pushing for congressional approval by the end of July, before the summer recess. But Senate and House consensus may not come until the end of the year, several sources indicated.
Neither the Senate Foreign Relations Committee nor the House International Relations Committee has scheduled any concrete dates to mark up legislation.
According to the US Indian Political Action Committee (USINPAC), the largest Indian-American PAC, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), International Relations chairman, said in a private meeting that he plans to mark up legislation before or on June 21. A congressional aide said that June 21 would be the target but that dates are fluid. The PAC has called approval of the deal its highest priority.
In a press release, USINPAC touted Hyde’s support for the deal: “His support is critical to the successful passage of the deal.”
But a Hyde spokeswoman said Hyde “has serious concerns regarding the proposed civil nuclear agreement.”
“The chairman reiterated his support for the president’s initiative in reaching an agreement with India, however he did tell [the] U.S.-India PAC that he will be working with the administration and Mr. [Tom] Lantos [D-Calif.] to craft a bipartisan piece of legislation that supports the president’s effort to strengthen ties with India,” said Kristi Garlock, Hyde’s committee spokeswoman.
Hyde is in the process of crafting his own bill, she added.
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), has expressed his full support for the U.S.-India agreement and has committed to bringing it to a resolution, said USINPAC’s chairman, Sanjay Puri, who met with Hastert recently.
“It is an important priority that has support, and we hope and expect to move legislation to the floor before the August recess,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). But Madden added: “No decisions have been made about when it will be considered on the floor calendar yet.”
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he is relying on Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, “to take care of it in the committee.” Lugar backs the accord but indicated that he may seek to add some conditions.
“I think it is certainly the intent of the president and the Senate for [the legislation] to pass sometime this year,” said Andy Fisher, spokesman for the committee.
But the Senate has a crowded schedule, debating a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a flag-burning amendment and a tax package with wide, bipartisan opposition. The Senate also has to consider the 2007 defense authorization bill, and both the House and the Senate still have to deal with the 2006 emergency supplemental.
“There is a concern that the agenda might cloud this issue out,” Puri said. “Congress has a lot to do, and that is a big concern. The business of the nation needs to go on.”
A few more Democrats than Republicans oppose the deal, a lobbyist working on it said. Even so, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has indicated her support.
While the issue is not expected to become a partisan fight, Democrats are not willing to give Bush “carte blanche,” a congressional aide said.
The administration initially proposed that Congress pre-approve the deal before the United States negotiated it with India, the aide said. Pre-approval would waive parts of the Atomic Energy Act once the president certified that India would make the necessary changes, the aide explained.
“The problem is that the administration’s initial proposal was to enunciate some general principles and for Congress [to] pre-approve [those],” the aide said. After the initial pre-approval, Congress would have a chance to overturn the deal, but only with a two-thirds vote.
“It is complicated procedurally,” the aide said.
The administration is eager to move ahead, the aide said.
“They think some indication of congressional support is going to make a difference in terms of what they are going to do with the Indians,” the aide said. “The Indians have some tough decisions to make, and the idea is that if Congress is going to do something they will be likely to make the changes.”
Fearing that the agreement may not have enough congressional support to alter radically 30 years of U.S. policy to punish India for developing nuclear weapons in the ’70s, Lantos, the ranking member of the House panel, proposed a compromise intended to keep the agreement alive. Congress would commit to approving it under expedited procedures but would only formally change U.S. law after lawmakers review the completed agreement and the IAEA safeguards accord.
Lantos is circulating his proposal in the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the matter.