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N-deal gets top priority in US Congress

The lame duck session of Democrat-controlled senate gives top billing to the deal in a new spirit of bipartisanship.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2006 10:47 IST

The Indo-US nuclear deal was listed as a top priority for the US Congress as it opened a lame duck session in a new spirit of bipartisanship after the defeat of the Republicans in last week's elections.

As the senate met on Monday afternoon, leaders of the losing Republicans and winning Democrats listed their own priorities, but when it rose for the day in the evening, both sides had agreed on three items for this week: keeping the government in operating funds, voting on a trade agreement with Vietnam and approving the India deal.

Current Majority Leader Bill Frist, a presidential aspirant in 2008, urged Republicans not to be discouraged by this "time of transition" - and to listen to the voters who ousted them from power.

"Change can be tough," said Frist, whose self-imposed 12-year term limit in the Senate comes to an end in seven weeks. "That is a very powerful message from the American people: Move forward and move forward together."

"But as we move forward - and that begins with finishing the business of the 109th - we must work together to overcome the crippling partisanship that has plagued our recent past. We must return to an era of working together in a bipartisan fashion," he said.

"That begins here and now," added Frist setting the Senate agenda: Completing the remaining appropriations bills, nomination of Bob Gates as Secretary of Defence, Vietnam trade legislation, and the US-India civilian nuclear technology bill, among others.

Bipartisanship was more a matter of pragmatism, noted Frist's successor-to-be, "We can't accomplish anything as Democrats standing alone. As we've shown, the Republicans couldn't accomplish theirs standing alone," said Democratic Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become the new majority leader in January.

His priorities in the lame-duck session included bipartisanship, open government and achieving results. Reid called on both parties to work together on real solutions to challenges in health care, energy, the economy and education.

Reid called on Congress to pass the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation bill, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, and the Gulf of Mexico Security Act conference report, all three of which will enhance US security and enjoy bipartisan support.

He also called for the passage of tax breaks for middle-class families and businesses as well as appropriations bills that include funding for veterans' health care, education and energy programmes.

"The elections are over. It is time for all of us to work together and move America forward. Last week, the American people spoke for change, and in the months ahead, Democrats will fight for change. We will focus on three priorities: bipartisanship, open government and results," he said.

Reid also repeated his call for a bipartisan summit with the Congressional leadership, "If we're going to have a new direction in Iraq, the president must listen to new ideas... Let's work together, and move America forward."

The Senate leaders returned to the chamber just before it rose for the day after discussing a spending bill for veterans and military construction with several interruptions for quorum calls - a device used to gain time for behind the scene consultations - to announce agreement on taking up three items this week - spending bills, Vietnam and India in that order.

Meanwhile, Indian-American pressure groups and US lobbyists have resumed full scale lobbying, convening meetings, conferences, and seeking appointments with key lawmakers to ensure the India bill's passage.

The bipartisan Coalition for Partnership with India is hosting a policy luncheon on November 14 to discuss the deal, after which members will head to the Hill to press lawmakers for movement. Separately, the US-India Business Council and other interest groups have also resumed lobbying efforts.

Indian-American Democrats, who had been gradually sidelined over the past decade by the emergence of Indian-American Republicans, have also come forward to add muscle to lobbying effort.

In an editorial on Monday, the Washington Post said a lame-duck congressional session when both the House and Senate are about to change hands isn't, as a general matter, the right time to make important policy decisions, but it must attend to a few important items including the India nuclear deal.

"The House has already approved a nuclear agreement with India; the incoming Senate Democratic leader, Nevada's Harry M Reid, has put that item on his priority list as well, and the Senate ought to act on it" it said.

However, the New York Times said, "Congress needs to pass the budgets it failed to get done before the elections. And since no time should be lost in the Bush reassessment of Iraq, the Senate should consider the nomination of Robert Gates to be defence secretary. And that should be the extent of the agenda."