- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Senate panel yesterday overwhelmingly approved President Bush’s proposed nuclear accord with India, the second strong endorsement of the far-reaching deal on Capitol Hill in three days.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-2 in support of the agreement, under which the United States would lift long-standing bans on the transfer of nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India, while India agrees for the first time to put much of its nuclear program under international supervision.

“I believe that this agreement is the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President Bush,” said committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

The House International Relations Committee on Tuesday gave the India deal a major boost by approving key aspects of the accord on a 37-5 vote. The hefty margins in both committees have revived administration hopes that the nuclear agreement could be approved by Congress before it adjourns for the fall elections, something that many had thought unlikely just a month ago.

Two Democrats — Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California — voted against the bill yesterday, after the committee rejected by a 13-5 vote an amendment by Mr. Feingold requiring Mr. Bush to certify that India was not using the civilian nuclear deal to boost its military nuclear arsenal.

Administration officials at the hearing had warned the provision would be unacceptable to India, but Mr. Feingold argued his amendment “was showing respect for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that the U.S.-India nuclear deal could be improved in several areas, but that critics should understand that the strategic benefits of a new relationship with India were immense.

“The desire for the perfect should not be the enemy of a pretty darn good deal,” he said.

The Bush administration and its supporters, including the increasingly influential Indian-American lobby, argue the deal will transform relations with Asia’s rising democratic power, while opening up major commercial opportunities in India’s fast-growing economy.

They also say the deal will lead to the first international oversight of large parts of India’s nuclear program. India never signed the NPT and has faced U.S. sanctions in the wake of a 1998 nuclear bomb test.

But nonproliferation activists warn the deal could poke a large hole in the global drive to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. They say Iran and other rogue states could cite the India exception as a justification for their nuclear programs.

Rep. Jim Leach, Iowa Republican and one of the five House members who voted against the accord, called the deal “a serious mistake.”

“We have undercut the most serious arms-control treaty perhaps ever negotiated,” he said.

Both the House and Senate versions of the India bill do not give the administration the upfront endorsement it originally requested. Both measures require the administration to submit the final deal for another congressional vote.

President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to the deal during Mr. Bush’s trip to New Delhi in March. The deal requires Congress to waive laws that require sanctions on India, and it must be approved by an international coalition of countries that supply nuclear technology and materials.

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