White House Asks Congress to Alter Nuclear Aid Law

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

Bush administration officials said yesterday that they expect months of negotiations with Congress over a nuclear cooperation deal in the works with India but asked lawmakers to begin changes now to U.S. laws to accommodate a future agreement.

The proposed legislation, submitted yesterday by the chairmen of the Senate and House Foreign Relations committees, would exempt India from sections of the Atomic Energy Act that restrict trade with countries that are not party to nuclear treaties. India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, making it ineligible for U.S. civilian nuclear technology.

Yet, according to proposed legislation, the United States will recognize India, once a final accord is reached, as a country that does meet nonproliferation standards because the deal would bring some of India's nuclear facilities under international monitors. Declaring that India meets nonproliferation standards would virtually guarantee congressional approval of the deal.

Republicans and Democrats have hailed White House efforts to improve U.S.-India relations less than a decade after the two nations were estranged over India's nuclear ambitions. But some in Congress are concerned about the agreement, which would provide U.S. nuclear power assistance to India while allowing the country to substantially step up its nuclear weapons production.

"This is round one of a 15-round match," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said after briefing Congress on the legislation. The White House had hoped for quick action in Congress when it first announced a new strategic partnership with India, but the negotiations -- both with New Delhi and Congress -- have gone much slower.

Under the agreement reached during President Bush's trip to India this month, India is to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs over the next eight years to gain U.S. expertise and nuclear fuel to meet its rapidly rising energy needs. India's civilian facilities would be subject for the first time to permanent international inspections. The Bush administration originally sought a plan that would have allowed India to continue producing material for six to 10 weapons each year, but the new plan would allow India enough fissile material for as many as 50 weapons a year. Experts said this would far exceed what is believed to be its current capacity.

Burns, a key negotiator on the deal, has spent two weeks meeting with members of Congress to address their concerns. "We're encouraged by our discussions on the Hill," he said in an interview. "Many members are in support, some are in opposition and the great majority are still waiting to hear the details. But we have a very good agreement that will advance our interests with India," Burns said.

A group of senior U.S. experts on South Asia, many of them former government officials, wrote a letter yesterday to Congress in support of the deal, arguing that it was time to stop shunning the world's largest democracy. A group of nuclear experts wrote letters opposing the agreement, saying it would destroy years of efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons.

Two senior congressional Republicans, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and his counterpart in the House, Chairman Henry J. Hyde (Ill.) reserved judgment on the deal but predicted that Congress will try to set conditions for its support.

Burns urged them not to do so, noting that it took the administration more than eight months just to reach the separation plan. "To reopen it risks never being able to achieve it again, reassemble it," Burns said.

Both congressional panels will begin hearings on the legislation in the coming weeks and receive additional briefings by Burns and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in April.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company