The Bush Administration -- as it could with the bill on the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement approved by the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday -- apparently can live with the tougher legislation introduced by Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Thursday, which coincided with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's arrival in Washington for his meeting with President Bush in the White House Oval Office.
Berman's bill -- which is in all respects similar to the Senate Committee's Bill that the government of India has found objectionable and offensive even though it has downplayed the controversial provisions found therein by saying it's only enabling legislation and that only the 123 Agreement is binding -- contains the additional proviso that in the event of a nuclear test by India, which leads to the automatic termination of the deal, the presidential waiver of this termination could be limited.
Under the Senate Committee's bill, as does many pieces of legislation dealing with such 123 Agreements and arms sales bills with America's allies, automatic termination of these agreements can be waived by the President on national security grounds and can be overridden by Congress only with a two-thirds majority.
Berman's Bill puts slightly more teeth into Congress with the presidential waiver having the authority for being overridden by the Congress with a simple majority and not two-thirds majority.
In introducing his bill, which was immediately placed on the House's suspension calendar, which means it could be taken up for a vote later in the later or at the earliest, Berman in briefing his Democratic and Republican colleagues said, "I support peaceful nuclear cooperation with India, and in 2006, I voted for the Hyde Act, which established a framework for this cooperation."
He said, "While I am under no illusion that India will give up its nuclear weapons, so long as the five recognized nuclear power states fail to make serious reductions in their arsenals, I believe it is a positive step to integrate India into the global non-proliferation regime."
"Having said that," Berman added, "I continue to have concerns about ambiguities in the nuclear cooperation agreement that the Bush Administration negotiated with the government of India, particularly with regard to the potential consequences if India tests another nuclear weapon, and to the legal status of so-called 'fuel assurances' made by our negotiators."
He said, "I am also deeply troubled that the Administration completed disregarded important non proliferation requirements in the Hyde Act -- thus putting American companies at a competitive disadvantage -- when seeking a special exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group."
Berman said, "This India legislation includes a number of provisions designed to improve Congressional oversight of the India nuclear cooperation agreement and help ensure that the agreement is interpreted in a manner consistent with the constraints in the Hyde Act. I will therefore vote in support of this Agreement."
Congressional sources said that putting the legislation on the suspension calendar, as pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several of India's friends in the House on the urging of the pro-India lobby, including the Indian American community, there is a suspension of normal rules like a 30-day requirement by the Congress and considered by a Committee and so on, which could result in inordinate delays.
One source said, this is a device that is usually used "for non-controversial items like National Flower Day or for instance recognizing the State of Alaska for record snowfalls last year and things like that and not something like this. So, this is indeed unprecedented."
And, at the time of writing, lawmakers on the floor were debating several other bills that had been put on the suspension calendar which were too controversial to be on it, but the Berman bill was likely to be taken up and probably approved, which would be symbolic at the time Dr Singh was visiting the United States.
Earlier, the Administration fearing that Berman would not introduce a bill and hence scuttle consideration of the Agreement by the House, along with some Republican allies had introduced a clone of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bill with Congressmanwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee doing the honors.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced the bill after the House Rules Committee in an emergency session voted that certain specified measures may be considered under the suspension of the rules on the legislative day of September 25.
The Rules Committee approved the suspension of rules on 44 measures, including Ros-Lehtinen's bill, which was the ninth on the list, titled, "A bill relating to India nuclear cooperation."
Berman's bill, was now listed as the 17th, and most likely to be approved Thursday night.
But, this Congressional sources said does not mean the Indo-US nuclear deal is done, because it would have to be reconciled with the Senate Bill once that Bill is approved on the floor of the Senate and a vote on it had not yet been scheduled, and the Administration and the pro-India lobby was hoping that it could be attached on to a Continuing Resolution for funding of the government or the $700 billion financial rescue package legislation or some other broader legislation to ensure passage.
But, some Senators like Robert Byrd, Virginia Democrat, were opposed to attaching any other bills to the CR or the rescue package bill and if the India nuclear agreement bill had to be free-standing it could mean a debate and could end up in a lawmaker like Byrd opposed to the deal filibustering and it not being voted on before the Senate finally adjourns.
The adjournment date was set for September 26, but now Congressional sources said both the House and Senate would likely work through the weekend and maybe even into Monday to complete the work on the financial rescue package and other pending appropriations bills before going home for the Jewish New Year holidays, which begin on Tuesday.
One source said, lawmakers in the Senate supportive of the deal and bent on getting it completed before they go home were "looking for a vehicle," as to how the Resolution of Approval voted 19-2 on Tuesday could be tagged on to.
But the source said, "There is opposition to anything being on the financial bale-out bill and also on the CR and the Defense Authorization bill is already done."
"And, if it (the India nuclear agreement legislation) has to go as a free-standing bill, that means it is subject to unanimous consent and there are people (like Byrd and others opposed to the deal like Senators Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, Jeff Bingaman, and Daniel Akaka -- all Democrats) who are not going to give their consent."
US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, who received Dr Singh at the Andrews Air Force Base early in the afternoon, told the media later that "I can't predict when the 123 Agreement would be cleared by Congress," but added, "It's not impossible that the deal will get ratified by the end of the current session."
"So far," he added, "the signs have been positive. The very fact that the deal is moving forward in the Congress is a tribute to the US Congress despite its pre-occupation with the trillion-dollar package."