Bush administration officials and US congressional leaders were locked in lengthy negotiations until late on Tuesday to produce a final version of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation bill that would be acceptable to India.
The negotiations began at 430 in the afternoon with a 15-minute conference of the principal congressmen who are members of the reconciliation committee —Senator Richard Lugar, Representatives Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde. After that, congressional staff members took over, with a constellation of lobbyists, administration officials and diplomats hovering around.
The process of reconciling the Senate and House versions of the bill is crucial because it is the last chance for Washington to lop off or modify amendments that have drawn criticism from New Delhi.
Congressional sources claimed that there had been broad agreement on watering down or excising most of the offending parts of the Senate bill, including the requirement for end-use monitoring of nuclear material and technology imported by India and an annual presidential verification of India's nuclear programme.
However, there continued to be difficulties over Section 106 which had an explicit ban on reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water technology to India. Though this is standard US policy towards all countries, New Delhi has insisted that the wording in the bill should not explicitly target India. But sources were positive, saying this was more a matter of wording than basic principles.
The negotiations over the House version of the bill was proving more difficult, said a key lobbyist for the Indian-American community, Swadesh Chatterjee. Little headway had been made by late afternoon on at least three of these amendments including one that required a ban on cooperation on the Indian government if it violated the Missile Technology Control Regiime or the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines, both designed to stop proliferation. New Delhi has argued this stricture should be entity specific, not apply to an entire government.
Indian diplomats in Washington were more circumspect, saying that the situation was too fluid to be able to pinpoint progress on specific amendments. "It's going back and forth right now," said one.
The White House, in a letter by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the heads of the Senate and House committees handling foreign policy, had laid out is objections to many of these amendments and why these should not be made part of the Indo-US nuclear deal.