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Key Democrat defies Bush, pledges oversight of US-India nuclear deal

Michael Roston
Published: Wednesday December 27, 2006
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A key House Democrat who supported the nuclear cooperation agreement with India has told RAW STORY that, in spite of a signing statement by President George W. Bush insisting otherwise, Congress will engage in active oversight on the deal.

In a public ceremony on December 18th, President Bush signed the "Henry Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act," permitting the US to export fuel to India's civilian nuclear energy program and broadly cooperate with the South Asian country in the nuclear sphere. Based on a variety of concerns that the deal would help India's nuclear weapons program or result in transfer of technology to states like Iran, Congress attached a wide range of conditions to the bill, requiring the president to certify that India was not taking actions that negatively affected US foreign policy goals.

But hours after the public ceremony, the White House issued a "presidential signing statement" which undercut nine substantive sections of the legislation, calling them advisory.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), the Democrat who will take over as chairman of the House International Relations Committee next month, has told RAW STORY that the president's claim in the signing statement that the bill's provisions are advisory has no standing. "It's very clear what the legislation requires," Lantos said, "and the president may not like it, but it's there."

Requests for comment on Lantos' remarks from the White House were not immediately returned.

The next step for the US-India nuclear deal requires the two countries to negotiate an agreement with the multilateral Nuclear Suppliers Group on their cooperation and nuclear trade. Lantos particularly pledged oversight by his office on this stage of the process. "If there are problems with it," he explained, "Congress will take a look at it again. The administration has an obligation to follow the law."

Shortly after Bush issued his signing statement, two Members of Congress, both of whom voted against the US-India nuclear deal, issued angry responses to the move.

A statement issued by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) warned that President Bush was declaring "that he can ignore the will of Congress when it comes to ensuring India doesn't aid Iran's fledgling nuclear program."

Similarly, a statement by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that "Congress and the Administration agree it is imperative to our national security that we prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet the President shamelessly brushed aside concrete steps Congress approved to avert that exact scenario."

Unlike his colleagues who had opposed the agreement, Lantos has championed the deal.

On the day the bill was signed into law by the President, Lantos' office released a statement explaining that he and others "spent more than a year shepherding the measure through the legislative process, resolving the concerns of some who said it would be detrimental to efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons."

Lantos' office went on to specifically describe the efforts, noting that:

"A bill drafted by the Administration was scrapped in favor of a series of legislative steps that will ensure that India's civil and military nuclear programs remain separate, assert Congress' oversight prerogative as the agreement is implemented, and require reporting to Congress by the White House on India's cooperation with U.S. efforts to deter Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the Republican who will serve as the ranking member of the House International Relations Committee, did not respond over a number of days to several calls for comment.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington, DC-based group that criticized the US-India nuclear deal as bad for international nuclear weapons control efforts, was unsure whether Lantos would follow through on this commitment.

"The failing of this legislation is that it's based on hope and urgings," Kimball said. He added that Lantos and other advocates of the US-India agreement from both parties "energetically rejected amendments from members who wanted the bill to be more air-tight."

"What needs to happen now," he insisted, "is vigilant oversight, and President Bush has shown he does not plan to faithfully execute [the provisions]."