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Hope floats for nuke treaty

The Indo-US nuclear deal now appears to command more support in the two key committees of US Congress, writes S Rajagopalan.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2006 01:43 IST

In what may be a morale-booster for harried officials, the Indo-US nuclear deal appears to command more support in the two key committees of US Congress than what most accounts have projected so far.

After Wednesday’s hearings, New Delhi and Washington may perhaps heave a sigh of relief, at least for the time being, over the level of support one could glean during proceedings in both the Senate and House panels.

But it’s still early days and several members, particularly on the 50-member House International Relations Committee, are yet to take a stand. The two panels are to hold a few more hearings before voting to refer the deal to the full Senate and House for a wider debate. And there, it could be anybody’s game.

Some accounts in the US media suggest administration officials are “elated” over the support, albeit qualified, from two senior Democrats of the 18-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Joseph Biden and John Kerry. So much so, they feel momentum can be built for an early vote in the two chambers by May or June.

On the House side, a measure of bipartisan support was discernible. Senior Democrat Tom Lantos enthusiastically endorsed the deal, without forgetting to enter his pet caveat over India’s relationship with Iran. Republican Dan Burton, an India-baiter on the Hill for long, sprang a surprise by pledging his unqualified support. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Eliot Engel voiced their backing.

Although the co-chair of India Caucus, Ros-Lehtinen has been circumspect on the deal so far. While indicating her support “in principle”, she, like Lantos, let it be known she has reservations over India’s ties with Iran. Others to lend support in the House committee included the strong India backers — Democrats Gary Ackerman, Joseph Crowley and Eni Faleomavaega, and Repubican Joe Wilson.

There was no word from Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House  panel who had earlier indicated that Congress may seek conditions to approve the bill. On Wednesday, he confined himself to laying down the broad parameters of the debate, taking care not to indicate which way he would go.

Senate committee chairman Richard Lugar adopted the same tack as he spoke of the importance of the new relationship with India but also dwelt on the deal’s non-proliferation concerns, as he set the stage for the testimony of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Biden peppered Rice with a series of pointed questions on the deal, but in the same breath announced: “I am probably going to support this.” Kerry, too, indicated a similar stance in case the administration could provide him certain assurances.

But three other Democrats on the Senate panel were unsparing. Paul Sarbanes, Russel Feingold and Barbara Boxer gave Rice a tough time. Boxer, as on a couple of previous occasions, had a testy exchange with Rice, bringing the Iran conundrum to the fore.