Washington, Nov. 17: In a ringing endorsement of the Indo-US nuclear deal that surprised its critics and supporters alike, the Senate last night approved legislation to enable its implementation by 85 to 12 votes after a marathon 11-hour debate.
The approval, shortly before Senators ended the first phase of their “lame-duck” session until December 4, was in stark contrast to the legislature’s failure to grant President George W. Bush’s wish for Congressional approval for a bill to establish “permanent normal trade relations” with Vietnam.
Shortly after the Senate vote on the India bill, Bush said in a statement from Singapore en route to Hanoi that he “look(ed) forward to signing this bill into law soon”.
“The US and India enjoy a strategic partnership based upon common values,” his statement said. “Today, the Senate has acted to further strengthen this relationship by passing legislation that will deliver energy, non-proliferation and trade benefits to the citizens of two great democracies.”
The contrast between the India vote and the defeat of the Vietnam bill on Capitol Hill reflects the support India enjoys across the board.
Several Senators, who voted against the India-related legislation, praised India in their floor speeches and rationalised their negative vote on the Senate leadership’s refusal to take into account their specific concerns about the deal.
Despite the overwhelming Senate vote, there was no wild rejoicing in New Delhi.
Vayalar Ravi, the minister for overseas Indian affairs, who is currently in the US, expressed guarded satisfaction.
“The passage of the bill... in the US Senate... reflects the very broad bipartisan support which this initiative enjoys,” external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.
In the same breath, he cautioned that “we must await the final version before drawing any conclusions on the legislation”.
Such abundant caution is a reflection that considerable difficulties still lie ahead before any benefits of the deal can come to India.
Behind the scenes, Senate and House members are already working on reconciling differing versions of the legislation passed by the two chambers before the current Congress surrenders power to a new one in January.
Without such reconciliation, Bush cannot sign the bill into law.
Last week, Indian and US negotiators sat down in New Delhi to work out a “123 Agreement”, which will set out the framework of actual nuclear cooperation between their countries. Sources said the gap in the negotiations was still wide and that there could be no agreed text.
The “123 Agreement”, so called because it is mandatory under section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, has to be voted on again by Congress, possibly next year.
Similarly, much ground has yet to be covered on a safeguards agreement to be negotiated between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the basis of an Indian plan to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities.
Finally, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), which controls the global commerce in nuclear material and technology, has to unanimously agree on changing its rules and making an exception for India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It’s an unrecognised nuclear weapons state under the current global non-proliferation regime.
Although the Senate last night defeated several “killer” amendments, which would have made it impossible for New Delhi to accept the deal, it incorporated two changes.
One of these requires Bush to certify that India was “fully and actively” cooperating with international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear programme. The other seeks to limit the supply of nuclear fuel to India commensurate with the “reasonable reactor operating requirements” of the facilities for which such fuel is intended.
This amendment reflects fears here that India may build up a large nuclear fuel bank under the deal to withstand possible sanctions in the event that it ever tests a nuclear weapon.