By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
The House overwhelmingly gave final approval yesterday to a landmark civil nuclear agreement with India, putting the Bush administration in reach of a substantial foreign policy achievement.
The legislation, which passed 298 to 117, still faces obstacles in the Senate, where it has been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but several senators have blocked it from coming to the floor for debate. The administration has pressed for final action before Congress adjourns, even though the 2006 bill that gave preliminary approval to the deal called for a much longer period of discussion and debate.
"I urge the Senate to quickly take up and pass this important piece of legislation before their October adjournment," President Bush said yesterday. "Signing this bipartisan bill will help strengthen our partnership with India."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) promised a vote on the agreement in his chamber perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
The deal, which has been fiercely opposed by nuclear proliferation experts, would give New Delhi access to U.S. nuclear technology for the first time since it conducted a nuclear test in 1974.
Since then, India has been barred from the worldwide nuclear trade, leaving it without advanced uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing technology that is superior to India's homegrown methods.
The administration has argued that the deal would bring a substantial portion of India's nuclear industry -- though not the facilities that produce materials for weapons -- under international observation and would forge ties between two large democracies that have had an antagonistic relationship in the past.
But critics say the deal undermines efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons because it rewards a country that violated nonproliferation norms by building bombs with material from civilian reactors.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who first pitched the deal to India in 2005, shortly after her confirmation, persuaded a leading skeptic, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), last week to help ease its passage. Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had planned to offer a bill that differed from the Senate version, which would have required House-Senate negotiations to resolve.
But after a call from Rice on Thursday, Berman agreed to bring the Senate legislation to the House floor.
In exchange, Rice pledged that the United States in November would push a 45-nation group that governs trade in nuclear equipment and materials to issue guidelines that would ban sales of sensitive nuclear equipment to countries that, like India, have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.