Would Congress Block the India Nuclear Deal?

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President Bush and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 2, in New Delhi

The U.S.-India nuclear deal George Bush signed with much fanfare in New Delhi on March 2 may not be dead on arrival, but it has certainly landed with a thud on Capitol Hill. Even though it is too early to tell whether opponents will build enough momentum to block the landmark agreement, what's already striking is how silent—and unenthusiastic—Congress seems over an agreement the Bush Administration hails as critical for cementing a strategic alliance with the world's largest democracy.

Except for the controversial Dubai ports deal, the Administration's diplomatic measures have typically received a warm welcome from Congressional Republicans. But over the past two weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her undersecretary who negotiated the nuclear cooperation deal, Nicholas Burns, have been treated like used-car dealers, with wary legislative customers insisting on kicking the tires and checking under the hood before they buy what the two are selling. When Rice had a private meeting with International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde on March 9, the longtime Illinois representative said that as a courtesy he would introduce the bill the Administration wanted to amend the Atomic Energy Act, but he warned Rice to expect the final legislation to arrive at Bush's desk with a number of conditions.

That wasn't what Rice wanted to hear. Administration officials have already told Congress that any new conditions—such as more safeguards on nuclear aid—would be rejected by the Indians and, as a result, sink the deal, which took about a year of painstaking negotiations to put together. The secretary, say sources privy to what happened at the meeting, also wasn't thrilled when Hyde told her the first hearing he planned on the India deal would be with outside experts—some of whom would certainly pick it apart. Four days later, on March 13, Hyde issued a press release announcing hearings, which said: "This is a complex agreement with profound implications for U.S. and global interests. Congress will need to take a close look at its many provisions in order to come to an informed decision."

Rice did manage to get Hyde to agree to let her testify first, so his series of hearings— likely to start the first week of April — will begin with her making the case. But Hill sources say the administration, which had wanted congressional approval of the accord by the end of spring, may be lucky to get a vote by the end of this year. "Clearly, there's not a lot of great enthusiasm for this deal," a GOP foreign policy aide in the House tells TIME.

In the Senate, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has warmed only slightly to the agreement. Immediately after Bush signed it, Lugar was noncommittal. On Monday, he budged a little, telling his hometown newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, in an interview that he was "likely to favor" the accord if it was "in the best interest of our country" and if there were safeguards in place to make sure India didn't use U.S. nuclear help to build up the small arsenal of nuclear weapons it already has.

The agreement to have India put its civilian nuclear power facilities under international inspection in exchange for being able to buy nuclear technology from the U.S. isn't a treaty, which would require only Senate ratification by a two-thirds vote. But it does require amendments to the 1945 Atomic Energy Act, which both the House and Senate must approve by majority votes, because that decades-old law effectively prohibits nuclear aid to India, which detonated an atomic device in 1974 and has refused to submit all its nuclear activities to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India conducted another nuclear test in 1998 and is now believed to have 50 to 100 atomic weapons in its arsenal.

Ever since the deal was announced, nonproliferation experts have complained that India would get U.S. nuclear technology, hardware and fuel without any limits being placed on its weapons program — and without adequate safeguards that the American aid won't end up helping expand that weapons program. Under the proposed accord, for example, 14 of India's civilian nuclear facilities would come under IAEA inspections, but eight other nuclear facilities would be classified as military installations and not subject to inspections. Those facilities would be able to continue producing nuclear bombs, and critics charge that uranium the U.S. and other countries could provide under this agreement would enable India to use more of its limited stock of indigenous uranium for its weapons program.

In the end, India might be able to increase its production capacity from its current 6 to 10 bombs a year to as much as 50 annually, experts warn. "The U.S.-Indian nuclear plan would implicitly endorse, if not indirectly assist, the further growth of India's nuclear arsenal," complains Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

While Washington can't roll back India's nuclear weapons program, senior State Department officials insist that the safeguards they've negotiated would ensure that no American aid ends up in it. What's more, they argue, whereas the U.S. has had no influence at all over any of India's nuclear activities for the past three decades, now more than half of its program would come under international controls. The deal, Burns tells TIME, also establishes "an important strategic friendship with India" that will benefit the U.S "for the next 50 years." In a Wheeling, W.Va., speech Wednesday, Bush gave another rationale for the agreement, arguing "it's in our interest that India use nuclear power to power their economic growth." That way, he argued, India would consume less of the world's oil supplies.

But the State Department so far has had mixed success convincing influential outside observers on the merits of the deal. After receiving a briefing on the pact by State Department officials last week, former Sen. Sam Nunn—an influential Democrat on defense issues who now co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonproliferation organization—told the Washington Post on Tuesday that if he were still in Congress he'd be "skeptical" of the accord "and looking at conditions that would be attached." On the other hand, the day before former secretary of state Henry Kissinger penned an op-ed article in the Washington Post praising the agreement as "a seminal contribution to international peace and prosperity. "Ultimately, congressional Republican sources think that view will prevail in Congress. If it doesn't, Rice, Burns and their boss will have a lot of explaining to do to their new friends in India.