By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006
The Bush administration won initial support from Congress yesterday for its plan to create a broad nuclear cooperation agreement with India that reverses decades of U.S. policies and requires changes in laws aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
In a 16 to 2 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved outlines for a deal the administration is negotiating with India. On Tuesday, the House International Relations Committee approved similar guidelines, in a 37 to 5 vote, after the White House backed down from an effort to prevent further congressional involvement in the deal. After consultations with key lawmakers last month, the administration promised that it would submit the final agreement to Congress for a vote.
The strategic accord between Washington and New Delhi, designed to accelerate India's rise as a global power and regional counterweight to China, is far from complete. But the congressional approvals signaled that the White House had won over Republican and Democratic skeptics while successfully countering a heavy campaign by arms control advocates who oppose much of the deal.
"We are very pleased with the committee votes," said R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs who has been a key negotiator with India. "Obviously, there are many steps ahead of us, but we believe Congress is supporting the president's policies here," he said in an interview.
The White House initially irked Congress by keeping it in the dark about the deal. Burns said he and others worked hard to bring Congress in afterward, and believes the deal deserves bipartisan support. "As we reflected on this whole process, we came to believe that Congress has a right to see and judge the agreement for itself. On that basis, the White House agreed to another vote," Burns said.
U.S. law prohibits nuclear cooperation with countries that have not pledged, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to forgo nuclear weapons. But the congressional committees agreed in their votes this week to carve out an exception to the nuclear trade law so that India can receive the nuclear fuel and technology it badly needs to provide electricity and modernize a country of 1 billion people.
Opponents have noted, however, that the nuclear benefits also could help India accelerate its weapons production.
India, which conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, refused to sign the nuclear treaty and has conducted additional surprise tests. The most recent, in 1998, came at the same time that rival Pakistan conducted a test, and brought international condemnation and U.S. sanctions for both countries.
The Senate committee yesterday rejected, 13 to 5, an amendment from Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) that would have required President Bush to guarantee that India would not divert nuclear fuel for its weapons program.
"There is no question that this assistance will indirectly aid India's bomb program, specifically the provision on nuclear fuel, which will allow India to use its existing supply exclusively for its weapons program," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
Kimball and others urged Congress to make further changes.
"The good news is that the debate is not over and the Senate has assured that there will be an opportunity to amend the deal and make additional corrections that are sorely needed," said Henry Sokolski, who runs the conservative Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Opponents, including some within the administration, have also argued that the deal complicates efforts to roll back nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea by creating the impression of a double standard for the United States' friends and foes. Proponents have countered that India, the world's largest democracy, has refrained from illicitly transferring its own nuclear technology and does not pose a threat to the United States.
Lawmakers will now have to jointly write a measure for the full House and Senate to consider. Burns said the administration would like to see the legislation come up for a vote before the midterm elections. It is unclear how long U.S. and Indian negotiators need to complete an agreement, but officials said significant differences remain.