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Lawmakers have settled differences on landmark legislation to allow US shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, clearing the way for passage of a measure that will overturn three decades of American anti-proliferation policy.
The bill is likely to be approved in a final vote Friday before it is sent to President George W. Bush to sign into law.
On Thursday, after several days of tense discussions and hours before the scheduled end of the legislative session, congressional negotiators signed off on the compromise bill. It reconciles separate versions previously endorsed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Senior lawmakers from both political parties championed the proposal as a major shift in US policy toward a strategically important Asian power that has long maintained what the Bush administration considers a responsible nuclear program. Critics countered that the plan could spark an Asian nuclear arms race and ruin global efforts to curb the spread of weapons technology.
The initiative is a top priority for the White House, and its passage would hand a rare victory to Bush, who has seen his popularity tumble and who will have to deal in January with a Democrat-controlled Congress after his Republican Party was defeated in elections last month. Bowing to pressure from the administration and the Indian government, congressional negotiators watered down provisions in the bill that would have tied US nuclear cooperation to India's relations with Iran.
Although Bush's signature would change US law, several hurdles loom before India and the United States could begin civil nuclear trade; one is even another congressional vote once technical negotiations on an overall cooperation agreement are settled between the two governments.
The legislation carves out an exemption in American law to allow US civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants; eight military plants would be off-limits. Congressional action was needed because U.S. law bars nuclear trade with countries, such as India, that have not submitted to full international inspections.
In the bill's final version, lawmakers weakened language that would have required that Bush certify that India has been cooperating fully on confronting Iran's nuclear program before allowing civil nuclear cooperation. As written now, the bill would require that the president provide Congress with an annual report detailing India's efforts on Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a letter sent last week to Congress that the strong language on Iran would "be viewed by India as adding additional conditions" to the original agreement "and could reopen the terms of the initiative to renegotiating."
Lawmakers, however, ignored administration complaints on another issue and included a condition banning the transfer of nuclear enrichment and reprocessing equipment to India.
Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley, in an interview, praised Congress for settling a "historic agreement that is going to ensure a positive relation between India and the United States well into the century."
Critics, however, painted a bleak picture, saying the extra nuclear fuel that the deal would provide could free India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons program.
"India and the Bush administration have got what they wanted: a gaping hole in the nonproliferation standards," said Daryl Kimball, director of the private Arms Control Association. Congressional supporters, he said, "have no reason to rejoice if they really care about stopping proliferation."
There is still work to be done. The two countries must now obtain an exception for India from the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material. Indian officials also must negotiate a safeguard agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.