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US Lawmaker Offers Plan to Save India Nuclear Deal

A key congressional Democrat says the Bush administration's nuclear accord with India lacks the support necessary to pass the U.S. Congress, and is offering a compromise to boost the chances that it will be approved.

At issue is an accord that would give India access to U.S. civilian nuclear technology in return for a pledge to open its non-military nuclear facilities to international inspections. For the deal to become effective, Congress must amend the Atomic Energy Act, which bans nuclear sales to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The agreement was announced in March during President Bush's visit to India. But details of the plan, including its conditions, duration and scope, have yet to be negotiated.

The top Democrat on the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos of California, says many lawmakers are concerned that the administration is asking Congress to act before details of the accord are fully hammered out.

He is proposing legislation that would delay congressional action pending conclusion of those negotiations, and at the same time put Congress on record welcoming the agreement and its positive impact on U.S. relations with India.

Lantos says Congress would then vote to approve or reject the deal with no amendments. The process would be similar to congressional action on so-called 'fast track' trade deals.

"This way, the administration will be able to reassure the Indian government that Congress supports the nuclear agreement and is prepared to consider the final accord in an expeditious manner," he said.

Lantos - who supports the nuclear accord with India - says he will discuss his proposal with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week.

The congressman made his announcement at a committee hearing, during which his fellow Democrats underscored their concern about the deal. They argue that, if the United States offers civilian nuclear technology to India - a country that refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it might encourage would-be nuclear weapons states, and possibly spur a nuclear arms race in South Asia.

"I am opposed to the administration's legislative proposal to grant India a special exemption from our nation's nuclear nonproliferation laws because it undermines U.S. national security interests, it sets a dangerous precedent that will be exploited by our adversaries and rivals, and it seriously weakens Congress' role in overseeing and approving the terms of nuclear trade," said Congressman Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The Bush administration argues otherwise, saying the deal would strengthen non-proliferation efforts by putting the majority of India's nuclear plants under international inspections.

It is an argument echoed by Congressman Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican.

"If Congress enacts this legislation, India will have a tougher nuclear scrutiny than is given to China, to Russia, to other major nuclear powers," he said. "None of these countries' reactors are under an inspection regime. India would place at least two-thirds of its program under the direct eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency."

The hearing was the fifth held by the International Relations Committee on the U.S.-India nuclear deal.