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Last-minute push for India nuclear deal

The opposition declined Bush's offer of a unanimous consent agreement and called for some 'killer amendments'.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2006 15:36 IST

With just a day left before the US Congress takes a break for elections, the Bush administration made a last-minute bid to break the impasse over the India-US civil nuclear deal in the Senate.

Shortly before the Senate adjourned on Thursday, Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist took the floor to say that his party was prepared to pass with no further debate a managers' amendment developed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Dick Lugar and its ranking Democrat, Tom Biden.

However, the opposition democrats had declined his offer of a unanimous consent agreement - a request to set aside a specified rule of procedure so as to expedite proceedings - to ensure that the Senate could complete consideration of the bill in a reasonable period of time, he said.

Instead, the opposition insisted on a large number of amendments, some of them "killer amendments" which would not be acceptable to India in terms of the July 18 agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W Bush, Frist said.

The other democrat amendments are not necessarily designed to kill the legislation, but their sheer volume will slow them down considerably and could, as a practical matter, make it impossible for the Senate to consider this legislation in 2006, he said.

"This is regrettable because, if the democrats would permit us to pass this bill tonight, we could send this bill to conference over the recess, where differences with the House bill could be resolved and we could be assured of sending this bill to the President before we adjourn," Frist said.

While the House had passed the enabling legislation by an overwhelming 359-68 majority, the Senate has not been able to take up its own version of the bill approved 16-2 in June by its Foreign Relations Committee because of objections raised to one provision or the other by a few senators on either side.

There was no immediate response from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid who had a couple of days ago claimed that his own proposal for a unanimous consent agreement had been objected to by Frist.

Senate Democrats have been strong supporters of the India deal, but the Republican Leader had chosen to bring 16 different legislative matters to the Senate floor rather than this important legislation, which is critical to the vitally important US-India relationship.

He then said the bill may still come up in the Senate before the break as Reid has pledged to do what he can to ensure its passage and Frist has asked Senators to be prepared to sit on Saturday to complete any unfinished business.

In his statement Frist said, "Enactment of this legislation is essential in order to begin a new era in relations between our nation and India, the world's largest democracy. This legislation will enable us to commence cooperation with India in the area of civil nuclear energy, something that is today contrary to US law."

"We need to be able to do this to fulfil commitments that President Bush made to Prime Minister Singh of India on July 18, 2005. If we are unable to fulfil those commitments, the disappointment in India will be such that US-Indian relations could be set back by many years, and the promise of a new era in relations that was born on July 18th of 2005 will be lost," he said.

Earlier on Thursday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack had expressed the administration's hope that it could get Senate approval for the deal in the next couple of days.

"I don't know if that's going to happen. There's a lot of pressing business up there on the Hill, but we certainly - we're pressing very hard to get this done in this session and as soon as possible," he said.

"We are pushing hard - the administration is pushing hard to get all the required agreements, you know, up on the Hill so that they can schedule a vote for it and to do that as soon as possible," McCormack said. At the same time, as a multiethnic democracy Indians have a healthy understanding of the legislative process, he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a "good meeting" with the Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee in New York, he said. "The vast majority of their conversation was about the India civil nuclear deal and, you know, all the various components and parts to that. So that was really the focus of their discussion," McCormack said.