Frustration as U.S.-India nuke deal languishes

Some supporters of a U.S. nuclear-technology deal with India are cautioning that any more delays in the congressional approval of the White House’s agreement could prompt New Delhi to walk out of it. 

The White House had pushed for a vote in the Senate on the legislation needed to start implementing the deal by the end of last week, but partisan squabbling delayed passage until after the midterm election. 

Now supporters of the pact are making last-ditch efforts to ensure that the Senate bill will be considered among the first issues when the Senate returns Nov. 13, so the upper chamber has time to reconcile its bill with the one the House passed this summer.

If that is not done by the end of the year, legislation will have to be marked up again in a new Congress next year, perhaps controlled by the Democrats in either or both chambers.

That kind of a delay would deal a blow to the Bush administration, which has sought to expedite congressional approval but has faced roadblocks. 

The controversial civilian nuclear deal has well-built support on both sides of the aisle in Congress, but the Indian government is more evenly divided between supporters and detractors, according to a source closely working the issue.

“This is a very controversial issue in India,” said the source, on condition of anonymity, “It is more controversial there [than it is here] with people accusing the government of giving too much to the United States.”

With delay or a significant change to the agreement “it is possible that New Delhi will walk out of it,” the source added. 

Russia, France, Australia and Canada have lined up to offer civil nuclear cooperation with India, hoping Washington would fail to deliver the deal, said Ron Somers, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-India Business Council.

“This is not an American gift to India,” said the source. “It is a balance of mutual interests. There are huge potential benefits to the United States,” both for business and non-proliferation reasons.

It could generate $100 billion in energy sales for American companies. But at stake are not only the profits directly linked to the nuclear energy deal, Somers cautioned. 

The deal helps the United States create a deeper strategic partnership as India develops and overhauls its infrastructure. This could mean a half-trillion dollars over the next decade, Somers said, as India builds roads, ports, airports and water development projects.

“This would result in the creation of hundreds of thousands of American jobs,” said Somers. “I am not suggesting that we are getting all those [contracts], but U.S. companies would be able to compete on a level playing field.

“We need to focus on achieving this initiative and aligning our two democracies for the 21st century. It is in the U.S. interest to do so.”

The agreement has mobilized an intense lobbying campaign, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the vanguard.

President Bush signed the U.S.-India joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pursue civilian nuclear cooperation last July.

Bush is seeking changes in U.S. law and international regulations to allow energy-starved India to obtain restricted items, including nuclear fuel.

The United States has fought for years to deny India access to nuclear technology because it developed and tested nuclear weapons. Although a nuclear power, India is not a signatory of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Bush reversed the U.S. stance by signing the U.S.-India agreement on nuclear cooperation.

The deal would require India to open some of power plants to United Nations inspectors for the first time.

The Indo-American deal must mesh with India’s efforts to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, thus ensuring that it helps New Delhi’s civilian energy program but not its weapons development.

India’s hawks say that Washington requires unacceptably invasive inspections that could damage national security.

“Public opinion is very split in India,” the source said. “India is one of the most pro-American countries.” But even some in the coalition government oppose the deal, the source said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) says the Senate will take up the bill marked up in the Foreign Relations Committee. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says a vote on the legislation is one of his top priorities in November.

“This is supposed to be a priority for the administration as well, so it’s a little puzzling why the majority leader failed to bring it to the floor after it was reported out of the committee in July,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman. “The fact is that we could have acted on this bill a long time ago, yet we were unable to do so because of serious objections from the Republican side of the aisle.”

Before adjourning last week, Reid proposed that the debate on the bill be limited to a handful of amendments and a short-time agreement, but the GOP leadership objected to that, said Manley.

It is possible that Frist will invoke cloture on the bill, said a source.