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US House further knots up nuke deal
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Complicating matters further for the smooth passage of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, two lawmakers have introduced competing bills in the House of Representatives.

On Thursday, Congressman Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced his version of a Bill approving the nuclear deal.

Berman’s actions came on the heels of the introduction of a different measure by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican co-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Berman said his bill included 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.”

Lynne Weil, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s spokesperson, said Berman had intended well in advance to introduce his Bill, which is why there was a “place holder” (No. 9 on a list of 44 measures refers to “A Bill related to India nuclear cooperation”.) in the House Rules Committee’s resolution for considering motions to suspend the rules on Wednesday. Ros-Lehtinen decided to introduce her own Bill.

Berman’s Bill has been listed under what is known as a “suspension of the rules” that means the rules of the House will be suspended so the measure can be taken up on a priority basis. The Bill was likely to be taken up for discussion on Thursday, however, there is no guarantee the House will vote on it the same day. For Bills listed under suspension of rules, there is no limitation on when a vote is to be taken.

Weil said the two Bills were different as there was a “certain degree of congressional oversight in Berman’s Bill,” an indicator that this was lacking from the Ros-Lehtinen Bill. Weil expected the Berman Bill would go to the House floor for a discussion on Thursday but said she was unsure whether the Ros-Lehtinen Bill would also be taken up.

Berman told his colleagues in the House on Thursday he would vote in support of the nuke deal. “While I am under no illusion that India will give up its nuclear weapons, so long as the five recognised nuclear weapons states fail to make serious reductions in their arsenals, I believe it is a positive step to integrate India into the global nonproliferation regime,” he said.

Berman admitted he continued to have “concerns about ambiguities” in the deal, particularly with regard to the potential consequences if India tests another nuclear weapon, and to the legal status of so-called “fuel assurances” made by US negotiators.

He said he was also “deeply troubled” that the Bush administration “completely disregarded important nonproliferation 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.”

The Ros-Lehtinen Bill has been cosponsored by top Republicans in the House has changed his tune of late and been supportive of the nuclear deal.

At the time of going to press, diplomatic and congressional sources were unsure when the Senate Bill would be marked up for a vote.

Even before Berman introduced his Bill, the Indian American Republican Council had issued a warning saying the nuclear deal would “likely die in the Congress” if the Bill passes. IARC spokesperson Nina Verghese opined: “A clean version of this Bill was introduced by a true supporter of the Indian American community, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. We had the opportunity to pass identical Bills in the House and Senate in a clean process.”

“But now, we’ve taken a step backward,” Verghese said of the Berman Bill. “It’s bad enough that chairman Berman instructed House

Democrats not to cosponsor the companion Bill that was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but now he has gone one step further.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Washington later in the day to meet Bush for a working dinner at the White House.

Despite concerns in India about the content of the Bill approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Wood said the Bush Administration was “very pleased” with the vote.

Diplomatic sources told The Tribune thatit was not likely the deal would be wrapped up by the time Singh meets Bush. With at least two senators opposed to the deal - Barbara Boxer and Russell Feingold - it was unlikely the deal could win unanimous consent in the Senate. Once approved by the Senate and the House, the two Bills must be reconciled through a process known as ‘conference’.

Sources said there has been no move in the Senate to attach the nuclear legislation to a separate piece of “continuing resolution.” This refers to legislation in the form of a joint resolution enacted by the Congress to provide budget authority for federal agencies and programmes to continue in operation until the regular appropriations Acts are enacted.

Both Obama and McCain — who are vying to be the next President of the US — have opposed appending unrelated legislation to the $700-billion bailout package currently being worked out in the Congress.



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