- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

A leading congressional Democrat said yesterday that lawmakers should postpone a final vote on the Bush administration’s nuclear deal with India because time had run out in the current legislative year to build support for the measure.

The proposal, put forward by California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, would frustrate administration hopes for quick congressional approval of the far-reaching deal, a centerpiece of President Bush’s second-term foreign policy.

Mr. Lantos, who said he supports the accord, noted that many in Congress say the agreement to share civilian nuclear technology and trade with India could undermine U.S. efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons to other states, including Iran and North Korea.

Some lawmakers also have balked at the idea of endorsing the agreement even before a final text is negotiated and before the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency nails down a companion agreement with India.

The agreement, clinched during Mr. Bush’s visit to New Delhi in March, would end U.S. sanctions barring civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for India putting the bulk of its nuclear facilities for the first time under international oversight.

U.S. officials say the deal would clear the decks for a vastly expanded strategic partnership with a rising South Asian democracy boasting a strong military and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

But with Congress facing a short legislative schedule in an election year, “there is not time to develop the consensus necessary to move this legislation forward in the face of these polarized views,” Mr. Lantos said.

Using the “fast-track” model for trade legislation, Mr. Lantos said Congress could vote immediately on a resolution approving the overall thrust of the agreement, putting off a final vote until the bilateral and U.N. agreements are signed.

His bill also calls for expedited procedures to ensure that both the House and Senate hold up-or-down votes on the final accord, with members not permitted to amend the agreement. Both the U.S. and Indian governments have warned that congressional conditions on the deal could torpedo the measure.

State Department counselor Philip Zelikow, addressing a forum on the deal at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said of Mr. Lantos’ idea: “Right now, our view is to handle this differently.”

Mr. Zelikow said he thinks Congress could approve the deal in this session, but he acknowledged that lawmakers might try to delay the vote or set conditions for its passage.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a leading critic of the deal, said the administration was trying to force a quick vote to avoid congressional scrutiny of the final package.

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