A NEW United States Congress was voted in on Wednesday, but it is the old Congress that will meet next Monday in the so-called lame-duck session. That is why diplomats from both the governments concerned still hope the Indo-US nuclear deal may yet get a senatorial stamp of approval.
Indian officials who met US congressional leaders in September say both the Senate's chief Republican, Bill Frist, and its chief Democrat, Harry Reid, said they would try to push the nuclear legislation through.
The present plan is for the legislation to be placed before the Senate on Thursday next week, then debated for two days and passed by vote on Friday.
The lame-duck session will then go into its Thanksgiving break and return the first week of December. In this second period the Senate and House of Representatives versions of the bill will be reconciled and the full Houses will vote on the final bill again.
Given that this tight schedule leaves no room for error, both Indian and US officials are keeping their fingers crossed. First, the politically recharged Democrats will have to stick to their promise to New Delhi that they will offer only 10 amendments to the Senate bill. The more the amendments, said a diplomatic source, the longer the debate.
Second, other bills that will be tabled before the nuclear legislation should not take up too much time.
"A number of appropriations bills must be passed first," said an Indian official. A Washington source noted that the White House had not helped by putting a trade pact with Vietnam at the top of the roster.
A last-minute effort by both governments to try and get the nuclear bill tabled on Tuesday was still on, said US officials. But it is not expected to succeed.
Said one US State Department official in Washington, "The Democratic leadership supports the deal. But the floor management may be impossible to accomplish." Most analysts agree: the problem is not party politics, but time.
Said Marvin Weinbaum, a US political scientist who specialises in South Asia, "The Democrats are no less interested than the Bush administration in sustaining the gains in Indo-US relations."
An Indian-American lobbyist said there was "a reasonable chance" that the legislation would pass in the lame-duck session. But if it did not, he added, the strength of bipartisan support meant that the bill still stood a good chance of passage in the new, Democrat-controlled Congress next year.