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U.S. Congressional clock ticks away; uncertainty over lame duck session

K.V. Prasad

WASHINGTON: The decision of the Manmohan Singh government to give a final push to the civil nuclear deal comes at a time when the calendar for the 110th U.S. Congress is almost over. There is a very small window for the lawmakers here to take a final look at the deal, once President George Bush submits his report to Capitol Hill.

In three weeks from now, August 1 to be precise, the House of Representatives will go into a six-week recess ahead of the national conventions of the two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans. Thereafter, Congress is scheduled to re-assemble for a three-week period, September 8-26, the latter being the target date for adjournment. This means the lawmakers are scheduled to make an appearance on the Hill only in January 2009.

That leaves the Bush Administration with an outside chance of getting the Democrats-controlled Congress to convene a lame duck session after the November elections. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told journalists recently that he did not expect Congress to come back for such a session. Mr. Reid’s comments came in the light of questions whether Congress would be back after Election Day to pass leftover pending bills addressing issues of domestic concern. The House leadership led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly not in favour of a lame duck session, either.

“If there is a lame duck session, it could consider the agreement,” Charles Stevenson of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies told me. But, he said, “I would expect that only if there is overwhelming support and the matter could be disposed of quickly. The congressional leadership is not going to spend limited legislative time on a controversial foreign policy matter right after an election dominated by domestic policy concerns.” Professor Stevenson, who teaches Congress and Foreign Policy as a subject, added that Democratic Party leaders who expect to increase their majority in the elections have no incentive to reconvene the Houses, especially to try and pass measures (on domestic issues they care about) that President Bush can veto.

Even if President Bush were to report to Congress immediately that all measures outlined in the Henry J Hyde Act — the 123 Agreement, an India-specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and an appropriate change in Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines — had been taken, Congress would need 45 days of continuous sitting to consider the resolution and then either approve or disapprove it.

“Even today there are probably not 45 days of ‘continuous session’ of the House and Senate as defined by law before Congress adjourns for the elections,” Professor Stevenson, who also worked as senior Hill staff earlier, noted.

There are two other issues: the roles of the Chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA); and how the next President will look at the nuclear deal.

Senator Joseph R. Biden, Democrat from Delaware who heads the powerful SFRC, promised to work with Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican from Indiana, to give the deal a push. The HCFA Chair, Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, voted in favour of the deal in 2006. Yet last year he introduced, along with two other Representatives, a resolution urging the Bush administration not to allow changes in NSG guidelines till it answered all outstanding questions regarding reported inconsistencies between the 123 Agreement and the provisions of the Hyde Act. The resolution also asks the administration not to support NSG exemption for India that is not consistent with the Hyde Act and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The resolution is pending before the HCFA.

If the deal does not go through this year, it will have to be the call of Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain, when one of them enters the White House in January 2009. The new President will have to make all the required determinations and then submit them to the new Congress for its consideration. In the opinion of Prof. Stevenson, the new President was unlikely to spend much political capital on a deal done by his predecessor until he achieved several of his own promised goals.

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