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Nuke deal gets thumbs up in Senate hearing
[April 07, 2006]

Nuke deal gets thumbs up in Senate hearing

(The Times of India Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)WASHINGTON: The U.S-India nuclear deal got a big boost on Thursday when two top Democratic Senators joined their Republican colleagues in cautiously welcoming the agreement and promising qualified support.

At a crucial hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first hurdle in a long legislative process to give life to the deal, Senator Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Committee, and former Presidential candidate John Kerry, supported the Bush administration's initiative despite some reservations.

Their backing came in contrast to withering criticism of the deal from two other Democrats in the 18-member committee, which has ten Republicans and eight Democrats. California's Barbara Boxer and Maryland's Paul Sarbanes both expressed pique and anger at the manner in which the administration forged the deal and indicated they would attach riders and caveats.

But support from Biden and Kerry, political heavyweights and putative presidential candidates for 2008, with no outright opposition from the half dozen Republicans who spoke, means the deal could easily clear the Senate Committee.

However that is only the first step in a long process. It also has to be cleared by a House committee before it goes up to the full Senate and House. But the Senate hearing could set the tone for the legislative debate.

The breakthrough at Thursday's hearing, the first step in this long process, came when Senator Biden said he is "probably going to support the deal" once he is satisfied that India understands the trust the U.S is placing on it and does not use the deal to accelerate its nuclear weapons program.

"This is a big deal, no pun intended. This is a jump of faith. It comes down to a simple bet we are making -- that India appreciates that our two nations will be the two of the anchors of the world," Biden, who had remained quiet about the deal so far, said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was testifying before the committee, told him that that the administration believed India's nuclear weapons program was more related to the political-military conditions to the region rather than to the quantify of fissile material available.

Rebutting the argument that the nuclear deal could accelerate weapons production, Rice said India had a "restrained minimum deterrence program." She also suggested that India had sufficient stocks of uranium for its modest weapons program and did not need the uranium freed up by the deal to advance its program.

Fierce opposition to the deal came from Barbara Boxer, the liberal Senator from California who is related to the Clintons by marriage (her daughter was married to Hillary's brother).

Echoing every argument of the non-proliferation lobby that was lavishly reported in the newspapers in what was evidently an orchestrated campaign; Boxer attacked Rice for not insisting on getting India to curtail its ties with Iran and indicated she would make that as a condition for the deal to pass.

But for the fireworks from Boxer and a procedural inquisition from Sarbanes, it was a fairly smooth hearing with most Senators agreeing with the broad principle of courting India as an ally and overcoming the historical non-proliferation baggage, although they nitpicked about perceived shortcomings in the deal.

Kerry, for instance, wanted the administration to look at the possibility of limiting the nuclear weapons of China, India and Pakistan the same way as U.S and the Soviet Union/Russia had. He also wanted India to limit its fissile material production.

On her part, Rice sought to draw the committee's attention to the big picture rather than small details, even as she answered their questions with poise.

"We believe the continued isolation of our strategic partner is a wrong policy choice," she told the Senate committee, "We have to deal with reality and overcome history. Give us your support and together we can advance American interest."

At the end of the day it seemed she had their broad support.

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