United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday called Congressman Howard Berman, a critic of the India-US nuclear agreement, from New York -- where she is attending the United Nations General Assembly session.
She convinced the lawmaker to whittle away all of the restrictive provisions of his bill he had introduced earlier in the day in the House of Representatives, to make it an exact clone of the legislation that was approved by the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
The administration, which has been quite pleased with the Senate bill, completed its negotiations with Berman just an hour or so before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President George W Bush in the White House.
Even though there was no signing of the nuclear deal, a vote was scheduled for sometime on Friday, and approval is now being considered a mere formality.
Once this bill is passed, it will have to be reconciled with the Senate bill, which is not going to be a problem at all since the two are replicas of one another, and the only major hurdle now facing the consummation of the deal is for the Senate supporters of the agreement to find an appropriate vehicle to attach the Senate bill to in order to ensure passage.
Berman's original bill has some language on Iran too which was inimical to India and after negotiators convinced him to remove this language, he still had some tougher provisions in his bill.
The bill in most respects was similar to the Senate Committee's bill, which 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.
Berman's bill contains additional language which called for a slew of presidential certifications to be provided to the Congress that were particularly intrusive to India.
But finally, after Rice kept calling him and senior administration officials like Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and other senior aides like Deputy Under Secretary of State John Rood kept working with him and his aides, they were able to convince him to remove these tougher provisions and make it a veritable clone of the Senate bill, which once reconciled could be made into one amalgamated piece of legislation.
However, like the Senate legislation, it still contained language that India finds unacceptable because it called for more punitive measures if India tests than found in the 123 Agreement. But the administration, the Indian American community activists and the US business leaders have accepted that.
When the Senate Committee bill was passed, Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen immediately called leading Indian American community activists and also the Indian government's lobbyists and expressed India's misgiving about the bill and declared that it would be difficult for India to accept the change of language and spoke of the significant issues it raised -- which are now contained in the Berman bill too.
The parts of the bill, which India found unpalatable, were in particular that it had to be in strict conformity with the Hyde Act, and also that in the event that India conducts a nuclear test, the US would not simply 'discourage' other Nuclear Supplier Group members to deny India nuclear equipment, materials and technology, but work with other NSG members to 'prevent' such transfers. Also, that the commitments regarding fuel supplies are indeed political and not legally binding.
In introducing his latest bill, shorn of the tough provisions that figured in it originally, Berman 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 recognised nuclear power states fail to make serious reductions in their arsenals, I believe it is a positive step to integrate India into the global nonproliferation 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 nonproliferation 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 recognising the State of Alaska for record snowfalls last year and things like that and not something like this. So, this is indeed unprecedented."
Earlier, the administration, fearing that Berman would not introduce a bill and hence scuttle consideration of the agreement by the House, had introduced a clone of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee bill with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee doing the honours.
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."
Earlier in the day, the Indian American Republican Council, on finding that Berman had not introduced the bill that the administration and the community had been looking forward to in order to move the process forward, slammed Berman and even the Democrats in general, accusing the latter of attempting to kill the deal.
In a statement, the IARC said that it was a Republican lawmaker, Ros-Lehtinen, who had introduced a Senate version of the Bill of Approval in the House and that this measure had found support and co-sponsors only among the top Republican leadership, and argued, "Unfortunately, history repeats itself with a partisan divide for what should be a bipartisan agreement."
Nina Verghese, the IARC spokeswoman recalled that "in 2006, House Democrats did everything possible to scuttle Republican-led efforts to pass legislation known as the Hyde Act, to give President George W Bush the authority to negotiate a civilian nuclear agreement with India."
"After two years, many hearings and countless negotiations, House Democrats stubbornly maintain their opposition. It is telling that not one Democrat signed on to this legislation (introduced by Ros-Lehtinen), while top House Republican leaders did so immediately," she said, and added, "On the day when the leader of the world's largest democracy (Dr Singh) visits Washington, DC, we should expect more from Democrats."
Verghese also asserted that the Indian American community should now realise which party takes the strategic partnership between the United States and India more seriously.
But, while Berman's bill could be voted on Friday, Congressional sources said that does not mean the India-US nuclear deal is done, because it would still 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. 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 Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd were opposed to attaching any other bills to the CR or the rescue package bill and if the nuclear agreement bill had to be free-standing, it could mean a debate. This could end up in a lawmaker like Byrd, who is opposed to the deal, filibustering and the bill 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, who were 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 bail-out bill and also on the CR and the Defense Authorisation 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, said, "It's not impossible for the deal to get ratified by the end of the current session. 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."