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Time running out for Indo-US nuclear deal

world Updated: Sep 09, 2008 11:00 IST
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A US-Indian civil nuclear cooperation accord, one of President George W Bush's top foreign policy initiatives, may finally have run out of time this year despite a crucial international endorsement secured during the weekend. With Congress expected to stop work for the year late this month, lawmakers would have to rush to push through the deal. Some in Congress, however, are vowing a careful review of US-Indian nuclear negotiations, which could doom the plan's passage this year. That would leave it in the hands of a new Congress, which will take office in early January; and toward the end of that month, a new president. It is unclear whether the proposed agreement would remain a priority.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's spokesman said on Monday that the State Department is working hard to get the deal approved, reaching out to the powerful Democratic chairmen of the foreign affairs committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Rep Howard Berman and Sen. Joe Biden.

Biden, the Democrat's candidate for vice president, has favored the accord, which would reverse three decades of US policy by shipping atomic fuel to India in return for international inspections of India's civilian reactors. Berman, who supports nuclear cooperation, is cautioning the Bush administration that Congress will take seriously its duty to study the accord. Congress must wait 30 working days after receiving the deal before it could be ratified. Lawmakers, who returned Monday from a long break, are scheduled to leave in about three weeks to campaign for November elections that will determine the next US president and the political future of many current members of Congress. To overcome the dwindling time, the Bush administration needs a supportive lawmaker to introduce legislation that would set aside the 30-day requirement. Barring passage of such legislation, Congress does not appear to have enough days left to ratify the deal.

Berman said if the administration wants to speed congressional consideration, it must deal first with address problems some lawmakers have, such as what an Indian nuclear test would mean for the deal. "The burden of proof is on the Bush administration," Berman said in a statement.

India has refused to sign nonproliferation agreements and has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974. But on Saturday, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations that supply nuclear material and technology agreed to lift the ban on civilian nuclear trade with India after contentious talks and some concessions to countries fearful it could set a dangerous precedent. Berman said Congress will study carefully the NSG decision, "along with any agreements that were made behind the scenes to bring it about."

Last month Berman warned that the Bush administration risks the collapse of the deal if it should fail to push the suppliers group to accept conditions that would punish India for testing nuclear weapons.

US officials have said that selling peaceful nuclear technology to India would bring the country's atomic program under closer scrutiny. Critics say it would ruin global efforts to stop the spread of atomic weapons and boost India's nuclear arsenal. Democratic Rep Edward Markey, a critic of the deal, said in a weekend statement that "no one should assume congressional approval will be automatic." He said US-Indian nuclear negotiations must not clash with the Hyde Act, a 2006 law that provisionally approved nuclear trade with India; "the Hyde Act is the law of the land, and it cannot be dismissed for cynical political expediency," Markey said.

A new Congress could take up the deal in early January, before Bush leaves office at the end of that month. Both presidential contenders, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have indicated support for the accord, but it is not clear that either would give it the same attention that Bush has.

Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia program, said lawmakers probably will not have "any powerful political compulsion" in coming weeks to move the Indian accord to the top of the congressional agenda.

Congressional leaders, Hathaway said, "will not want to give the impression that, in a very limited time, we're not focusing on energy, we're not focusing on housing crisis, we're not focusing on inflation and rising unemployment, we're focusing on what, for most Americans, is an esoteric treaty unrelated to their needs."