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Congress Wary, but Receptive to India Deal

The civilian nuclear agreement wins support of key senators, but some lawmakers fear proliferation and New Delhi's ties to Tehran.

April 06, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's controversial nuclear agreement with India, facing its first formal reviews on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, drew a lengthy list of questions and criticisms but gained support from key lawmakers in both parties.

In back-to-back hearings, members of Senate and House committees told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they feared the deal could weaken controls over the spread of nuclear arms and complained that the proposal allowed Congress too little influence over a decision that could reshape one of the United States' most important relationships. Others expressed concern over accounts of military cooperation between India and Iran.

Although some members reserved judgment and others predicted that Congress would make substantial revisions to the deal, it won support from lawmakers such as Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and George Allen (R-Va.).

The proposed deal, viewed by President Bush's aides as one of his most important foreign policy accomplishments and announced during his trip to India last month, would open the way for the United States to help build India's civilian nuclear power industry and, in so doing, seal a new bond between the countries.

India, which has nuclear weapons, has been denied American aid for its civilian atomic energy program because it has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But administration officials argue that the U.S. should accept India's status as a nuclear power and pursue common economic and strategic interests.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), offering one of the day's bluntest critiques, said at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the deal in effect rewards India for refusing to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. She also charged that the administration's desire to solidify ties with India was part of its goal of offsetting the influence of China, which she called "the unstated yet driving force behind this deal." She said the strategy was "old-fashioned, Cold War thinking."

Boxer, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) expressed concern about news reports of military contacts between India and Iran, suggesting that the administration should not provide nuclear know-how to a nation that is friendly with the Islamic regime in Tehran. The concern was based on reports that Iranian ships carrying naval cadets made a port call at the southern Indian city of Kochi last month.

U.S. officials accuse Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

Lantos, ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee, said at the panel's hearing that he expected to vote for the U.S.-India proposal, but that any military cooperation between New Delhi and Tehran would "certainly derail this deal."

Rice sought to play down the Iran-India contacts, telling lawmakers that India describes them as "low-level military-to-military contacts."

Some lawmakers raised questions about the procedure through which the administration has asked Congress to approve the deal, which requires changes in existing law that restricts U.S. transfers of nuclear know-how and technology to India.

Bush wants Congress to make the changes now -- before the U.S. has worked out arrangements with the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency on how India's nuclear facilities would be monitored.

If lawmakers objected to the final arrangements once they were made, they would need to muster a two-thirds vote to halt them.

The deal also must be approved by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which seeks to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Ros-Lehtinen, one of the most influential members of the House committee, said that although the administration believes the Indian government has handled its nuclear arsenal with restraint, she would like to see safeguards written into the deal in case a future Indian government takes the country in a different direction.

Despite the apparent unease of many lawmakers, Biden said he probably would support the deal, and Kerry said he was "inclined" to back it. Allen described it as "an ideal bet."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, signaled that he expected Congress to take its time studying the deal, even though the administration would like to see it enacted without delay.

"Congress must undertake its own exhaustive deliberations," said Lugar, who has asked the administration to answer 82 questions on the proposal.

Lugar and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) chairman of the House International Relations Committee, gave no hint of how they would vote on the proposal.

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