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N-deal bills moved in US Congress
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee today introduced bills in the US Congress aimed at amending the Atomic Energy Act and facilitating nuclear trade with India.

The bills, based on the proposed legislation on the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, were introduced in the House and Senate at the request of US President George W. Bush’s administration.

By providing this draft legislation to the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Bush administration took the first step in initiating a congressional review of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department here this afternoon, Under-Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns noted, “We are in round one of a 15-round match”.

Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his panel would closely review the proposed nuclear cooperation agreement, the Indian separation plan and the legislation.

“The committee will commence the review with a classified briefing from Under-Secretaries Nick Burns and Bob Joseph in the last week of March. During the first week of April, Secretary (of State Condoleezza) Rice will testify in an open hearing”, Mr Lugar said.

Congressmen Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, leaders of the House International Relations Committee, introduced a similar bill in the House.

When the Congress would return from its Easter recess in April, the Senate committee would receive testimony from panels of outside experts who both support and oppose the agreement, Mr Lugar said.

“This schedule should be looked on as the beginning of the oversight and review process; it is possible that additional committee hearings and briefings will be necessary”, he added.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had held one hearing on the issue so far, at which Mr Burns and Mr Joseph as well as non-proliferation experts testified.

Mr Lugar was part of a congressional delegation that met Mr Bush at the White House last week to discuss details of the civil nuclear agreement.

In recent weeks, he had met administration officials repeatedly on this matter.

Mr Burns said a somewhat lengthy process of debate lay ahead, adding that the administration was encouraged by the number of members of the Congress who had spoken out in support of the deal.

He acknowledged that members had also raised some objections and questions about the agreement.

Mr Burns said the administration expected a vigorous debate on Capitol Hill and members of the Congress had a right to full briefings from US officials on the nuts and bolts of the agreement. “We think that we are putting a good case”, he said.

Miss Rice had sent individual letters and a package explaining the deal to members of the Congress and would meet the congressional leadership again next week to allay concerns about the consequences of the agreement.

Under the deal, the Bush administration hoped to share nuclear technology with India, a nation that had not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Mr Burns, who had played a key role in negotiating the deal with the Indians, noted that it was now up to the congressional leadership on how they wanted to go forward.

“We respect the separation of powers”, he said, referring to distinctions between executive and legislative branches in the US system of governance. The Bush administration suggested an India-specific waiver of amendments to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, that currently barred trade in nuclear technology and dual-use technology with countries that did not accept full-scope safeguards on its nuclear facilities.

The bills were introduced in the Congress on the eve of a recess for the Irish holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.

Mr Burns was hopeful that hearings and a vote on the bills would be completed by May, at which time the administration hoped to approach the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group with a request to allow nuclear trade with India.

Earlier this week, Mr Hyde said the US Congress might seek conditions for the approval of the nuclear deal.

Mr Lantos, who co-chairs the House International Relations Committee with Mr Hyde, noted that the issues involved in the deal were complicated and technical, and it would take some time for the Congress to absorb those.

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