James Sterngold / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-03-26 07:57:40
(March 25, 2006) — Growing resistance to President Bush’s proposed nuclear cooperation deal with India is threatening to slow, and possibly kill, an agreement that the president has described as vital to improved relations with the budding South Asian power.
The deal, involving a change in the law that would permit sales of civilian nuclear power technology and equipment to India, was the capstone of Bush’s visit to India earlier this month and was hailed as the key to a breakthrough in what have long been wary relations between the two countries.
Shortly after the president returned from India, the White House sent Congress draft legislation to enact the agreement. But some members of Congress and a number of congressional staffers said the proposed bill would sharply limit congressional oversight, which has increased skepticism from Republicans and Democrats who are worried about the proliferation of nuclear technology and about possibly boosting India’s nuclear weapons program.
“Every day that more questions are asked about this deal is another day toward the deal being placed in jeopardy,” Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, said in an interview. “The more (lawmakers) understand the deal, the more trouble the deal will have.”
In another potential setback, the Bush administration ran into serious questions this week about the deal from other countries that must approve any changes to the rules on trade in nuclear equipment and materials. Under international rules, such sales are prohibited because India, which possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal, has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the key international agreement preventing the spread of technology and materials that can be used to build weapons.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 45-nation body that regulates trade in nuclear technology, must agree to make an exception for India to allow the deal to proceed. But at a meeting of the body in Vienna this week, the United States faced a number of serious questions about the agreement and ultimately failed to get other members to place the India deal on the agenda for the group’s annual meeting in May, at least for now, several people with knowledge of the talks told The Chronicle.
A State Department spokeswoman said she had received no official word on the Vienna meeting and so could not confirm the reports.
But one diplomatic official in Washington, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly, confirmed to The Chronicle that the Bush administration had been slowed in its efforts to obtain approval from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, at least for now.
Markey said he had heard, too, that there was resistance to quick passage of an exemption for India from some member countries of the suppliers group.
“Yes, there are several countries that have reservations about the deal,” Markey said. “They are insisting on getting enough time to ask their questions.”
Nuclear experts and some members of Congress have expressed concern that the deal, although limited to civilian sales, might indirectly aid India’s weapons program, spurring an Asian arms race and encouraging other countries to seek exemptions from the restrictions on nuclear trade. Some lawmakers said they would consider modifications to ensure that the deal does not allow India to expand its weapons program.
At the least, concerns over the legislation could slow congressional consideration of the deal, perhaps until next year, which would represent a major reversal for the Bush administration, which is facing resistance on a number of other policy fronts.
“In Congress, this one clearly crosses party lines,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, which opposes the agreement. “The bottom line is this will not come out of Congress the way it came in.”
One well-placed GOP staffer, who asked that he not be identified because only members of Congress are allowed to publicly express opinions on the deal, said some Republican lawmakers are especially concerned that the safeguards in the agreement Bush brought back from New Delhi appear to be weaker than expected, raising fears that India could build more nuclear warheads with minimal international monitoring.
“There is tremendous ambivalence on this” in Congress, the staffer said. “We are going to expose some fault lines in this agreement that the White House doesn’t want us to expose, and it may not pass.”
The White House has continued to press hard for the deal. Bush, speaking in West Virginia on Wednesday, said it is important to improve relations with India and insisted that the Indians have “proven themselves to be a nonproliferator, that they’re a transparent democracy, that it’s in our interest for them to develop nuclear power to help their economy grow.”
Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. companies would be permitted to sell civilian nuclear power technology to India in return for India permitting international inspections of some of its civilian nuclear facilities. But facilities used for weapons production would remain off-limits. All in all, 14 of India’s 22 nuclear facilities would be opened, but the precise terms of the agreement have not been finalized, another factor slowing congressional action.
The deal would open a new market for American power reactor producers — as well as those from other countries — and would give the booming Indian economy a source of desperately needed energy, as well as recognition as a legitimate nuclear power.
What has particularly upset some critics, including members of Congress, is that India would have the right to choose which facilities were monitored and which were not, including any facilities it builds in the future. In particular, a breeder reactor that can produce large amounts of plutonium for weapons is to remain off limits to inspectors.
In addition, the proposed legislation contains language that appears to reduce congressional oversight.
Under current law, the president can create an exception for a country. But for civilian nuclear trade to proceed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must pass resolutions affirming the exemptions from current prohibitions. If a country is already a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear trade can be halted only if both chambers of Congress pass a resolution rejecting the sales within 90 days of the president’s order.
The package drafted by the White House seeks to have it both ways for India. It suggests that India be granted an exemption from the laws prohibiting nuclear technology trade with a non-treaty country. But it also insists that India should be treated like a signatory country, which means only a hasty joint resolution by both chambers could stop the deal. That timetable would be very difficult to meet.
“I can tell you, a lot of people are concerned that the legislation is just too high-handed,” said another congressional staffer. “It all but eliminates congressional oversight, and the members are just not interested in giving that up.”
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