As the US Congress made its first moves to put the India-US civil nuclear deal on fast track, there were indications that it may be done by month end, if not before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit next week.
First indications of the way things may be shaping up came on Thursday at a hearing of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee where Democratic Senator Chris Dodd gave a call for approving the "historic" agreement this month.
"We would be well advised to approve it this month... rather than waiting until next year," said the senior senator presiding in the absence of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, an avid supporter of the deal, who is away campaigning.
The India nuclear deal "is not perfect", said Dodd. "But approval of this agreement will still be a milestone in US-Indian relations. And, approve it we must."
Dodd's remarks coupled with the broad bipartisan support for the deal demonstrated at the hearing gave a clear signal that Bush administration's efforts to get the deal done before the Congress adjourns Sep 26 ahead of the Nov 4 presidential elections may be bearing fruit.
The White House transmitted the text of the nuclear agreement and other relevant documents to lawmakers Sep 11, five days after the NSG gave a waiver to India for nuclear trade.
Then after a marathon two-hour session of the committee, Dodd suggested that the deal could be included in an omnibus "continuing resolution" of the Senate and House of Representatives with several other measures tagged to a spending bill that lawmakers must pass before they leave Washington to let the government run.
"I don't see any likelihood a freestanding proposal would have any opportunity for consideration," he told reporters. Dodd said there was a "strong desire to reach agreement," but some lawmakers have reservations.
The senator said his committee would work over the weekend to find a way out for quick approval without unravelling the agreement by opening it up for amendments in case the 30-day mandatory period is waived.
The concerns of the House too would have to be considered, he said alluding to House foreign affairs committee chairman, Howard Berman's reluctance to put the deal on fast track despite the efforts of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and several members of the US Congress.
Berman says he supports the deal, but has some reservations about the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver to India for nuclear trade. He has said that it was the responsibility of the Bush administration to first prove that the waiver is consistent with the US enabling law, the Hyde Act.
At the Senate panel hearing, Under Secretary of State William Burns, who negotiated the last mile for the India waiver at NSG's Vienna meeting asked lawmakers to waive the law to consider the deal, saying it was critical to US national security and the future of US-India ties as well as to non proliferation worldwide.
"We fully appreciate the extraordinary nature of the timeframe within which we are asking the Congress to consider this initiative," he said.
A failure to ratify the deal would keep US firms from doing business in India's multibillion dollar nuclear energy sector, Burns said praising India as a "role model in the international community."
John Rood, acting undersecretary of state for arms control, said the US believes India will stand by a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. But, he said, "Just as India has maintained its sovereign right to conduct a test, so too have we maintained our right to take action in response."
He repeated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2006 comments that should India test nuclear weapons, the deal would be called off.
"India is taking the necessary steps to secure nuclear and other sensitive materials and technology," Rood said.
Senior Republican Senator Richard Lugar pointed out that under existing law, lawmakers would normally be in a 30-day period of consultation on the agreement, after which they would have 60 days to consider a resolution approving the deal.
"Given the need to waive most of the 30-day consultation period, a simple, privileged resolution is unavailable to us. Amendments will be in order, and there is no guarantee of a vote on final passage," he said.
Lugar wanted several outstanding issues to be addressed, including confusion over whether the deal would be terminated if India conducted a nuclear test or spread nuclear technology as provided for in the Hyde Act.
A couple of senators did express their strong concerns about the pact, chiefly that the extra fuel the accord provides could boost India's nuclear arsenal by freeing up its domestic uranium for weapons.
"I am still concerned that this deal seriously undermines non-proliferation efforts, and could contribute to an arms race that would have global implications," said Democrat Russ Feingold.
Burns responded by saying that "there is no perfect guarantee, as you know. But our conviction is that by moving in this direction, we are deepening the incentive for India to focus on civilian nuclear energy and deepening its incentive to continue to move into the mainstream of the non-proliferation regime."