N-deal may be done soon; Berman softens stand (Second Lead)

September 26th, 2008 - 9:53 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan SinghWashington, Sep 26 (IANS) Even as the US Congress grapples with the nation’s worst financial crisis it may yet approve the India-US nuclear deal soon with a key lawmaker giving up his insistence on riders unacceptable to India.The India bill may now come up for vote in the House of Representatives and in the full Senate in the next couple of days as the lawmakers work through the weekend to deal with the Bush administration’s $700 billion bail-out plan to save the US financial system. The Congress was earlier scheduled to break Friday for the Nov 4 elections.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Howard Berman, agreed to go with the approval bill endorsed 19-2 by the Senate panel after calls from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President George Bush Thursday.

Though the bill could not be passed by Congress before their meeting, Bush assured the Indian leader “we’re working hard to get it passed as quickly as possible”.

Describing the deal as one sign of a “good, strong strategic relationship with India”, he said: “It has taken a lot of work on both our parts, a lot of courage on your part, and of course we want the agreement to satisfy you and get it out of our Congress.”

Both the new Berman version and the Senate panel version make implementing the 123 Agreement subject to the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the Hyde Act and any other applicable US laws, but contrary to the general impression there is no explicit reference to “testing”.

Both bills only affirm “it is the policy of the United States to seek to prevent the transfer to India of nuclear equipment, materials, or technology from other participating governments in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or from any other source” in the event of US terminating the 123 agreement for violation of the US laws.

While the US Atomic Energy Act provides for automatic termination of nuclear cooperation agreements under Section 123, Section 129 of the same law also gives the president authority to issue a waiver on grounds of national security.

India has all along maintained that it would be bound only by its 123 agreement. This too provides for consultations that would “take into account whether the circumstances that may lead to termination or cessation resulted from a Party’s serious concern about a changed security environment or as a response to similar actions by other States which could impact national security.”

One reason why the Bush administration went to great lengths to persuade Berman was that if the versions passed by Senate and House are not identical, a select committee has to meet in a “conference” to reconcile them before Bush can sign in it into law and get the deal done.

Following the calls from Rice, Berman who had some reservations on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver to India dropped his earlier version of the bill, which though similar to the Senate panel bill also required the two chambers’ versions to be reconciled in a committee with the involvement of the administration.

He was also persuaded to drop killer amendments including one on Iran that could have sabotaged the legislation besides some language with which both the administration and the Indian side were none too happy.

While Rice kept calling Berman, senior officials like Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and Deputy Under Secretary of State John Rood kept working with him and his aides to bring him round.

Presenting his earlier bill, Berman told his Republican and Democratic colleagues that while he supported peaceful nuclear cooperation with India, he had “concerns about ambiguities in the 123 agreement”.

He was particularly concerned “with regard to the potential consequences if India tests another nuclear weapon, and to the legal status of so-called ‘fuel assurances’ made by our negotiators,” Berman said.

“I am also deeply troubled that the Administration completely disregarded important non proliferation requirements in the Hyde Act - thus putting American companies at a competitive disadvantage - when seeking a special exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” he said.

His legislation, Berman said, “includes a number of provisions designed to improve Congressional oversight of the India nuclear cooperation agreement and help ensure that the agreement is interpreted in a manner consistent with the constraints in the Hyde Act.”

Earlier, amid fears that Berman would not introduce the necessary bill, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced approval legislation identical to the Senate panel bill after seeking suspension of rules at an emergency session of the House Rules Committee.

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