Congress Moves Toward Approval of India Nuclear Agreement

Congress is marking-up legislation that would allow the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement to be implemented. The deal is controversial because India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has tested nuclear weapons.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The Bush administration's controversial nuclear deal with India has passed its first Congressional hurdle. The House International Relations Committee yesterday voted to send legislation endorsing the deal to the House floor. A vote is expected there next month.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The Republican and Democratic sponsors of the legislation speak in lofty terms about the U.S. agreement to supply India with nuclear fuel and technology. The ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos, describes this as a defining moment in bilateral relations.

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): After decades of disengagement punctuated with hostility, we now have the opportunity to achieve what will be a historic geo-strategic realignment of the world's largest democracy, India, with the world's oldest democracy, the United States.

KELEMEN: The legislation he and Republican Chairman Henry Hyde moved through the Committee yesterday supports the administration's agreement with India, but gives Congress a bit more say in how it goes forward.

Hyde complained that the White House originally wanted Congress to just rubberstamp the agreement.

Representative HENRY HYDE (Republican, Illinois): Congress was being asked to vote to remove itself from the process almost entirely, and abandon its Constitutional role.

KELEMEN: He says the legislation that now goes to the floor will require President Bush to go back to Congress for final approval once the president is sure that India has worked out an inspections agreement with the UN's nuclear watchdog, and once the nuclear suppliers group, which governs nuclear trade, signs off on the deal.

Still, some members of the International Relations Committee wanted Congress to do more to fix a deal they argued was hastily negotiated. Iowa Republican Jim Leach was among the five who voted against it.

Representative JIM LEACH (Republican, Iowa): This is a new day in U.S.-India relations. It's also a sad day in the world of arms control and the rule of law.

KELEMEN: India has nuclear weapons and is not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Some arms control experts fear that if India gets nuclear fuel from other countries, then it could some of its own scarce uranium to build more bombs. Congressman Leach says this could intensify an arms race with Pakistan.

Rep. LEACH: I think advice to the administration before this goes forward would have been very clear-cut. This is a foolish direction to go in. Now that the administration has taken that action, Congress is on the spot. This is a dilemma for the international world that we have undercut the most serious arms control treaty perhaps ever negotiated.

KELEMEN: Leach said the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is being, as he put it, knifed. But New York Democrat Gary Ackerman described it more as a surgical modification to carve out an exception for India. And he rejected the idea that the deal sends the wrong message to Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan.

Representative GARY ACKERMAN (Democrat, New York): I think the message to them is clear. If you want to be treated like India, be like India. Be a responsible international actor with regard to weapons of mass destruction technologies. Don't sell your nuclear technology to the highest bidder. Don't provide it to terrorists. Be a democracy and work with us on important foreign policy objectives and not against us.

KELEMEN: The debate in the House Committee dragged on much longer than expected and crossed party lines. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to mark up similar legislation on Thursday. The State Department is hoping for smooth sailing there.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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