As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in the United States, a key Senate panel approved the landmark India civil-nuclear deal raising hopes it may yet be done before he meets President George Bush on Thursday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 19-2 in favour of the accord at
a business meeting on Tuesday afternoon with only Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold and California Democrat Barbara Boxer voting against the agreement.
The only amendment moved by Feingold to toughen restrictions on selling India the technology to reprocess nuclear fuel was defeated on a 15-4 vote.
The senate step pushed the prospects of the deal's approval by the full Congress before the Manmohan Singh-Bush meeting, but there is still an element of lingering uncertainty with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yet to indicate if and when it's going to take up the issue.
Another major hurdle is the fact that lawmakers and officials are grappling with a $700 billion Bush administration bailout plan for Wall Street facing a meltdown rushing to complete the process by Sep 26 when they break for the November 4 election.
There are some indications that the Congress session may be extended by a week to deal with the massive crisis threatening the US financial system. The India deal could be pushed into that grey area. Alternatively the Congress could take it up with other pending legislations in a lame duck session after the elections.
Manmohan Singh acknowledged as much as he expressed cautious optimism about the deal being wrapped up during his US trip ending on Saturday.
"We are hopeful that the deal will be finalised," he told reporters as he flew from Frankfurt to New Yorksaid. But "much will depend on the US Congress," he added noting, "They (US) are preoccupied with the global financial situation."
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph R Biden, who is also the chairman of the panel, as also its top Republican member Dick Lugar, hailed the approval of the legislation as a "significant" and "important" steps towards seizing "an important strategic opportunity."
"It's a very important milestone in the relations between two great democracies," said Democrat Christopher J. Dodd, who chaired the afternoon hearing in the absence of Biden away campaigning. "At least for this committee, it is progress that we have moved this issue off the table."
"What better present could we give to the prime minister than to get this passed?" asked Dodd. He was "confident" that the House and Senate could find the time in the next few days for a final vote on the pact, said Dodd but noted that, as chairman of the Senate banking committee, he was consumed right now with negotiations on the bailout package.
But even as Biden "showing commitment to peaceful nuclear cooperation with India - the world's largest democracy" vowed to "continue fighting as hard as I can to achieve this important victory" he reminded: "Today's committee passage is significant, but several steps remain before this bill becomes law."
"I hope Congress can complete the job in the few days remaining before adjournment," he said noting, "Lugar and the other Members of this Committee have worked hard to forge a bipartisan compromise on this important and complex issue."
"Enactment of this bill will help the US-India relationship grow, while advancing India's ability to meet its energy needs in a way that fits within the cooperation framework Congress has worked so hard to establish, Biden said.
Describing Senate panel's approval as "an important step for the United States and India to seize an important strategic opportunity," Lugar noted:
This cooperation and agreement has been developed through extensive public hearings and a public record that answers hundreds of questions.
"This has resulted in overwhelmingly favourable congressional votes at each step of the process," he said. The enabling US law, the Hyde Act enacted in December 2006, was passed by an overwhelming 359-68 votes in the House of Representatives and 85-12 in the Senate.
"I am confident that we have cooperation from the Bush Administration and a strong bipartisan team in Congress to complete action on the bill this year," Lugar said.
The Senate panel's voting Tuesday came after "an original bill to approve the United States-India Agreement for Cooperation on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, and for other purposes", co-sponsored by Dodd and Lugar was added on the agenda of the committee at the last minute.
But the House Committee's Democratic chair Howard Berman is still holding out despite the Bush administration pulling out all stops to get the deal done before Manmohan Singh comes calling. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has met Berman a couple of times to keep up the push.
Berman says he supports the deal but has reservations about the Sep 6 Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver for India for nuclear trade. The committee spokesperson Lynne Weil, according to a media report, said it was discussing ways to expedite a vote on the agreement.
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