The Indo-US nuclear deal cleared its first hurdle in the way of Congressional approval with ease -- thanks to a fine balancing act by two key Congressmen in building a bipartisan consensus over what has been billed as a "historic" legislation.
While President George Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the administration's key negotiator on the deal Nick Burns left no stone unturned to build support for the bill, many a legislator would not bite because they felt the administration had taken them for granted.
In came, Republican chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois and Tom Lantos of California, the leading Democrat, in the House International Committee.
To ensure broader bipartisan support for the legislation, they crafted an altogether new bill that would take care of Congressional concerns, yet keep it safe from "killer" amendments that would require a return to the negotiating table.
To reassure members that the Congress was not being reduced to a mere rubber stamp, the new bill, based as it was upon the administration's original proposal, was amended with several significant changes, the most prominent of which concerns the role of Congress, as Hyde noted before opening the discussion on the bill.
He readily acknowledged that the original bill was conceived in a profoundly unsatisfactory manner in several respects.
For, it would have granted the administration an unprecedented and sweeping freedom of action by waiving almost wholesale the existing laws regarding civil nuclear commerce with foreign countries, even as it reduced the role of Congress to a bare minimum.
In effect, Congress was being asked to vote to remove itself from the process almost entirely and abandon its constitutional role.
The new bill changes the process by which Congress will consider and pass judgment on a negotiated agreement regarding civil nuclear cooperation with India.
Whereas in the administration's version, Congress would have been restricted to a relatively minor role of review and able to make its influence felt only with heroic effort, the new language restores its traditional role in these types of agreement, he said.
However, Hyde cautioned that to open the door to amendments to a negotiated agreement would in effect be to render the process of negotiation untenable.
That approval, however, is by no means assured, he said in a balancing act, asking the administration to pay close attention to Congressional concerns.
To unruffle Congressional feathers, "A Sense of Congress" section has been added that lays out conditions regarding when civil nuclear cooperation with other countries may be in order -- and India meets those criteria.
In addition, there is a "Statement of Policy" section that clarifies US policy in a number of areas, in particular the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the interpretation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a series of goals regarding India and South Asia.
In the key section on the waivers to existing law needed to allow civil nuclear trade with India to proceed, the certifications the president will need to make have been significantly tightened and broadened, with a focus on ensuring that India actually accomplish several difficult goals that our two countries have already agreed must take place, Hyde suggested. The provisions regarding the Nuclear Suppliers Group have been significantly strengthened.
Several other suggestions from members had not been included for a variety of reasons, ranging from not being germane to imposing conditions on India or the administration that would have the effect of killing any possibility of an agreement.
But in effect, the draft bill approved by the House Committee circulated has hardly any changes in the operative part and retains virtually everything envisaged in the July 18, 2005 and March 2, 2006 joint statements by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The "Sense of Congress" notes notes that preventing proliferation of nuclear arms, other weapons of mass destruction, and the means to produce and deliver them are critical objectives of US foreign policy.
Sustaining the NPT and strengthening its implementation, particularly its verification and compliance, is also the keystone of the US non-proliferation policy, it says, adding that the NPT has been a significant success in preventing the acquisit ion of nuclear weapons capabilities and maintaining a stable international security situation.
In the non-operative section is also a reference to Iran. It calls for securing India's 'full and active participation in US efforts to dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability (including the capability to enrich or process nuclear materials), and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction'.
Significantly, the section on General Statements of Policy the bill talks of the US policy toward South Asia that would include achieving a moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive purposes by India, Pakistan and China at the earliest possible date.
The bill also speaks of India's full participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative, export control laws, regulations and policies with the Australia Group and with the Guidelines, Procedures, Criteria, and Control Lists of the Wassennaar Arrangement.
Among his submissions to Congress, Bush will have to describe steps taken by India to work with US for conclusion of a multilateral treaty banning production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
This must include a description of the steps that US has taken and will take to encourage India to identify and declare a date by which India would be willing to stop production of fissile material for nuclear weapons unilaterally or pursuant to a multilateral moratorium or treaty.
The legislation stipulates the conditions under which the termination of nuclear transfers to India could be effected.
These include -- if India makes any materially significant transfer of nuclear or nuclear-related material equipment, or technology that does not conform to NSG guidelines, or if ballistic missiles or missile-related equipment or technology that does not conform to Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines, unless the president determines that cessation of such exports would be seriously prejudicial to the achievement of US non-proliferation objectives or otherwise jeopardize the common defence and security.
In the critical operative part the determination that would have to be made by the president would include that India has provided the US and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with a credible plan to separate civil and military nuclear facilities, materials, and programmes and has filed a declaration regarding its civil facilities with the IAEA.
It would also include that India and IAEA have concluded an agreement requiring the application of IAEA safeguards in perpetuity in accordance with IAEA standards, principles, and practices; and that India and the IAEA are making substantial progress toward concluding an Additional Protocol consistent with IAEA principles, practices, and policies that would apply to India's civilian nuclear programme.
The president would also have to make a determination that India is working actively with the US for the early conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and is working with and supporting the US and international efforts to prevent the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology; that steps are being taken by New Delhi to secure nuclear and other sensitive materials and technology.