N-deal headed for Congressional nod - sooner or later

September 9th, 2008 - 10:18 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 9 (IANS) As the US pulled out all stops to clear the last hurdle in the way of the India-US civil nuclear deal, there are “good signs”, as the White House put it, for its approval by the US Congress, sooner or later.But it was hard to say how soon would it be as officials went into an overdrive to prepare what is being called the “Hyde package” for the US Congress as it convened Monday for a short session scheduled to end Sep 26 to allow the lawmakers to campaign for the Nov 4 elections.

This would not leave enough time for the Congress to approve the implementing 123 agreement under the procedure laid out in the US enabling law, the Hyde Act and the US Atomic Energy Act.

These require the agreement to sit on Capitol Hill for 30 days and then give the Congress 60 days to take an “up and down” or a yes-or-no vote without any amendments. The Bush administration is thus lobbying for ways to overcome the 30-day rule, given the broad bipartisan support for the India deal.

But before that the administration has to send the Congress the ‘Hyde package’ that includes seven presidential determinations that certify completion of all pre-requisites stipulated by the US enabling law.

These essentially cover besides the waiver US won for India from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, “substantial progress” by India toward concluding an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on an “additional protocol” of safeguards for its civilian nuclear facilities.

Once the ‘Hyde package’ is submitted to the US Congress sometime this week, the House and the Senate foreign relations committees need to clear it before it’s brought before the two chambers for a vote. A shortened procedure would require support of key lawmakers, particularly the heads of the two panels.

While the Senate panel chair Joseph Biden, who is also the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is quite supportive of the deal, his counterpart on the House panel, Howard Berman, is unwilling to agree on a shortened procedure unless he is convinced that the NSG waiver is in conformity with the Hyde Act.

It was Berman who had muddied the waters for the deal before the Vienna NSG meeting by releasing a so-called “secret letter” from the State Department saying that the US could immediately end nuclear cooperation with India and stop providing it fuel if it conducts a nuclear test.

However, some see signs of flexibility in Berman’s latest statement that “the burden of proof (that the NSG decision is consistent with the Hyde Act) is on the Bush Administration so that Congress can be assured that what we’re being asked to approve conforms with US law,” Berman said.

The House panel chief, who otherwise supports “cooperation on civilian nuclear energy with India,” and had voted for the Hyde Act, also insists that “only by first passing new legislation could Congress set aside the 30-day requirement.”

But such legislation could open the door for amendments to the 123 agreement which could complicate matters further given a few diehard opponents of the deal on the Capitol Hill. The Bush administration would rather have a clear up or down vote than endanger the deal this way.

To win over the sceptics, the Bush Administration is banking on the strong bipartisan support the nuclear initiative enjoys in the US Congress given that the House version of the Hyde Act was passed by 359-68 votes and the Senate bill cleared by 85-12 votes.

One new argument in favour of early action is that technically India can start cooperation with other NSG countries since it now has the waiver. But a grateful India would prefer to wait for the completion of the India-US nuclear deal before entering into similar agreements with those waiting in the wings like Russia and France, diplomatic sources here said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice too has already talked to the Indian government about not disadvantaging American companies in any way by any Congressional delay. But the talk would certainly increase pressure on the US Congress to act soon.

And if all the president’s men still can’t put together the deal and convince the lawmakers to either shorten the procedures and sit a little longer before they break for the elections, the Congress could still come back to complete the deal in a “lame duck” session after the election. The Congress did so in the case of the Hyde Act in December 2006.

Even if the Democrats keen to deny President George Bush a major foreign policy victory choose not to act during his watch, the deal is still all but certain to be clinched by the next administration, be it Republican or Democrat, as both presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama support it.

But in all likelihood, it may be sooner than later!

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