The India-US nuclear deal may finally come up before the ongoing lame-duck session of the US Senate on Thursday following an agreement between President George W Bush's Republican majority and minority Democrats.
As the Senate met on Wednesday afternoon, current Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that the India bill would be taken up after the passage of a $94 billion agricultural spending bill as the two sides were close to a "unanimous consent agreement" limiting the number of amendments and the time for debate.
Democratic leader Harry Reid, who assumes the mantle of majority leader in January with his party winning control of the Senate in the November 7 poll, reminded the house that as they were set to take a two week Thanksgiving break on Friday they must begin debate on the India bill at the earliest as there were 18 or so amendments to consider.
But that was not to be as two Democrat senators from North Dakota, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan,would not let the chamber proceed until the majority agreed to pass an agricultural disaster legislation as promised.
For close to four hours, they took turns to speak on their pet legislation until they apparently had their way in behind the scenes negotiations between their leadership.
The Senate then adjourned until 9:30 am (8:00 pm IST) on Thursday with an announcement that India bill would be taken up and possibly voted upon after a period of 'morning business' - or brief speeches by Senators on issues of interest to them.
The announcement set at rest fears that the enabling bill on the India nuclear deal may again be crowded out of the legislative calendar as the Vietnam trade bill that Bush was keen to take with him to Hanoi unexpectedly fell in the House on Tuesday as it failed to get a two-thirds majority required under an expedited procedure.
As Bush left on Wednesday for Moscow en route to Hanoi for the APEC summit on November 19 without the Vietnam deal in his pocket, the Republican leadership decided to bring forward the legislation again in December under normal procedures since 61 members of Bush's own party had curiously voted against it.
Meanwhile, non-proliferation activists too have mounted a last-ditch effort to stall the India deal ahead of its consideration by the Senate with one of the strongest critics of the deal serving a notice that he intends to introduce a 'killer amendment'.
Democrat Senator Russ Feingold, who was one of two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members who voted against the legislation when it was approved by a 16-2 margin in June, said the India deal "has potentially significant ramifications for US national security and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty."
"We must ensure that as we build a closer strategic relationship with India, one of our most important partners, we do not simultaneously weaken our efforts to stop the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons," he said suggesting these issues must be addressed when the bill is debated by the full Senate.
The Arms Control Association (ACA), followed up a letter to Senators on Tuesday with a 'Note for Reporters' by its Executive Director, Daryl G Kimball on Wednesday supporting Feingold's proposed amendment requiring the president to determine that US nuclear assistance does not in any way facilitate or encourage an increase in India's nuclear bomb material production rate.
Other Senators may propose amendments conditioning broader US nuclear trade with India on it joining the five original nuclear-weapon states in voluntarily halting the production of fissile material for weapons purposes or negotiating a multilateral, non-discriminatory production cutoff agreement with other fissile material producers, he said.
Such approaches are not only common sense but would be consistent with UN Security Council actions, Kimball said.
Absent a decision by New Delhi to halt the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, the proposed US-Indian nuclear trade deal would allow India to continue and possibly accelerate the buildup of its nuclear weapons material stockpile, he said.
If India is truly committed to a "minimum credible deterrent," it should be able to declare as a matter of national policy that it has stopped fissile material production for weapons or join the United States, China, France, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom in a multilateral, nondiscriminatory fissile material cutoff agreement pending completion of a global, verifiable FMCT.
In the very least, the president should to be able to certify to Congress that US nuclear supplies to India do nothing to assist or encourage India's nuclear bomb programme, Kimball said.
A Democratic member of the House, which voted a companion bill by an overwhelming 359-68 vote last July, too raised the spectre of nuclear ties between India and Iran to oppose the India deal.
"How can we even consider eviscerating our non-proliferation laws to send advanced nuclear technologies to India while they are playing defence for one of the world's most dangerous nuclear wannabes," Markey asked urging the Senate to "investigate these issues thoroughly before they cast a single vote."