Congress May Not Pass U.S.-India Nuclear Pact

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

India's civil nuclear agreement with the United States may have cleared a key hurdle in New Delhi this week, but it appears unlikely to win final approval in the U.S. Congress this year, raising the possibility that India could begin nuclear trade with other countries even without the Bush administration's signature deal, according to administration officials and congressional aides.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has struggled to keep his coalition government intact over the controversial deal to give New Delhi access to U.S. nuclear technology for the first time since it conducted a nuclear test in 1974. This week, he secured an agreement with the Samajwadi Party to back the deal, giving him enough support to retain his majority even as the Communists bolted over fears that the pact would infringe on India's sovereignty.

But the legislation passed in 2006 -- the so-called Hyde Act -- that gave preliminary approval to the U.S.-India agreement, requires that Congress be in 30 days of continuous session to consider it. Congressional aides said that clock can begin to tick only once India clears two more hurdles -- completing an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and securing approval from the 45 nations that form the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs trade in reactors and uranium. Because of the long August recess, less than 40 days are left in the session before Congress adjourns on Sept. 26.

"At this point, both [the IAEA and NSG actions] have to take place in the next couple of weeks" for the deal to be considered by Congress, said Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But the IAEA Board of Governors is not expected to take up the matter until August, whereas the NSG may take several months to reach a consensus.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly insisted there will be no lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 elections. There would be little incentive for the Democratic majority to hold a lame-duck session if, as expected, the Democrats significantly gain seats.

President Bush's agreement with India, considered a key part of his foreign policy legacy, is designed to solidify Washington's relationship with a fast-emerging economic power. Bush and Singh agreed to the pact in July 2005, but it has faced repeated delays and opposition in both countries.

Now, with the near impossibility of congressional passage by year-end, officials and experts have begun to focus on the possibility that other countries -- such as France and Russia -- would rush in to make nuclear sales to India while U.S. companies still face legal restrictions.

"India doesn't need the U.S. deal at all" once the NSG grants approval, said Sharon Squassoni, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It was a fatal flaw in the logic of the U.S. Congress."

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing congressional strategy, agreed. "I don't believe there is anything to prevent them from doing that, if we don't ratify it," he said, noting the irony of the United States not profiting from a deal it set in motion.

But he suggested the administration would use that awkward situation to pressure Congress not to thwart potential business opportunities for American companies. "It is the hidden force of this agreement," the official said. "It is U.S. business that sees an opportunity."

Ever since the deal was struck, the administration has performed a balancing act between adhering to the letter of U.S. nonproliferation law and assuaging Indian concerns that it was not being treated like a true nuclear power. This year, when the administration answered nearly 50 questions posed by Congress about a separate implementing agreement negotiated with India, it took the unusual step of insisting the answers remain secret for fear of torpedoing the agreement.

India, which is running short of uranium needed to fuel its reactors, is especially eager to win "clean" agreements with the IAEA and the NSG that would not result in fuel cutoffs if it decides to resume testing nuclear weapons.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a strong supporter of the agreement, but Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic rival, is more skeptical. During the congressional debate on the Hyde Act, Obama inserted language in the bill limiting the amount of nuclear fuel supplied to India from the United States to deter nuclear testing.

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