Business celebrates late Bush foreign policy win

With all eyes on the rescue plan for Wall Street, it was easy to miss the big foreign policy win for the Bush administration this week: final congressional approval of an agreement that allows civilian nuclear trade between the United States and India.

American companies, which had mounted a concerted lobbying campaign in support of the pact, were celebrating along with the administration, eyeing a potential multibillion-dollar new market for a variety of products and services.

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The Bush administration has pressed the deal for the past three years, and as Wednesday’s 86-13 Senate vote demonstrated, had won broad bipartisan support for the plan since then. The House had approved the deal a week earlier by a 298-117 vote.

At a news conference on Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto called the new deal a “major victory.”

“The opportunities now available for U.S. investment in India’s civil nuclear sector are enormous, and we encourage our private sector to take advantage of every opportunity,” Fratto said.

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama both supported the deal, which the Indian-American community, a growing political force, also lobbied heavily for in addition to business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the government of India.

But the broad support and the minimal debate belie serious reservations harbored by some lawmakers and anti-nuclear advocates. Critics say the deal will make it more difficult to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

“This is going to make it harder to do what needs to be done to strengthen and protect the beleaguered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which lobbied against the agreement.

Leonor Tomero, director for nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said the deal would damage nonproliferation efforts with other countries, and said that Congress did not fully consider the ramifications of the new agreement.

Under the deal, the United States can sell uranium to India for the development of nuclear power plants. That would free India up to use more of its own limited uranium resources to build additional weapons, which could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, Kimball said.

In exchange for getting nuclear fuel and technology from the United States, India agreed to open its civilian nuclear program to international inspectors, but is still restricting access to its military nuclear facilities.

Supporters say the deal will help develop a much-needed nuclear energy industry in India, which is becoming a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity as its economy grows.

“This is an historic achievement for both countries,” said Andrew Parasiliti, vice president of BGR International, a division of Barbour Griffith & Rogers, which lobbied on behalf of India for the deal.

“It allows India to expand its civilian nuclear sector to meet the energy needs of its people. It recognizes India’s record and commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by bringing India into the nuclear fold and ending its exclusion from the global nonproliferation regime.”

India also recently signed a six-month, $350,000 contract with Patton Boggs to help lobby for the deal.

Backers argued that the United States would be left out of lucrative deals available to other countries should it not end the ban on nuclear trade with India. India already has signed cooperative agreements with France and Russia.

A month ago, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 45 nations, agreed to lift restrictions on trade. This was a requirement for the deal between India and the U.S. to go forward, and the NSG only acted after lobbing by the two countries.

Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, said in a release that the deal signals a “new era in U.S.-India relations.”

The council, which counts 300 companies as members, said the agreement opens the door to as much as $150 billion in commercial trade between the United States and India over the next 30 years.

Still, critics said the approval of the nuclear trade pact sent a wrong signal. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) offered an amendment, which was defeated, that they said was necessary to prevent the United States from exporting a nuclear technology if India detonates a nuclear explosive device.

“Approval of this pact makes it difficult to justify our nonproliferation policies to the world at large, and in particular to other treaty signatories such as South Africa, Brazil and Taiwan, which have foresworn their nuclear weapons program,” Bingaman said.