The US Congress has set the ball rolling for fast track approval of the India-US civil nuclear deal with a key Senate panel set to review the implementing 123 agreement on next Thursday.
America's third top diplomat, Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns, would be the sole witness at the Sep 18 hearing of Senate Committee on Foreign Relations called Friday, just a day after President George Bush asked the Congress to approve the landmark accord.
With Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden, who heads the Senate panel, busy campaigning, the meeting would be presided over by fellow Democrat Chris Dodd.
Biden, an avid supporter of the India deal, is "pleased" at the submission of the deal to the Congress and had promised Thursday that his panel "will act promptly to review the agreement in a hearing, as soon as next week."
The announcement coupled with gathering support from top Congressional leaders boosted the prospects for the landmark agreement's approval before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Washington Sep 25, though Washington was unwilling to set a target date.
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has hoped "that work can be done so that we can take it up" by waiving the mandatory 30-day waiting period for the legislation to be taken up.
The Senate majority leader Harry Reid too has said he "will try to find a way to move it forward" this year, but the House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Howard Berman is still holding out.
Berman's support is crucial as it's the two foreign affairs panel, which have to recommend the deal's adoption by the full Congress and how to go about it.
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who has been leading the Bush administration's efforts to beat the clock has met Pelosi, Reid and Berman besides calling up a number of key lawmakers to put the approval process on fast track.
Berman "voted for the Hyde Act and supports civilian nuclear cooperation with India," his spokeswoman Lynne Weil said, referring to the US enabling law adopted in December 2006.
But he "wants to study" the various documents on the nuclear deal submitted by the White House Wednesday, she said. Berman wants the Bush administration to prove that the deal is consistent with the Hyde Act.
At the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We'd obviously like to move this forward as quickly as it possibly can," when asked if the administration had a target date for Congressional approval of the deal
"The administration would like to see, and is doing everything it possibly can, to get this agreement done this year," he said in response to another question whether it was trying to get the Congress to do it before its scheduled adjournment Sep 26.
But he declined to say whether the administration was trying the Congress to waive the 30-day rule or whether there would be a lame duck session saying: "The Congress is really going to be in the best position to talk about that," McCormack said.
A Republican lawmaker Joe Wilson also on Friday appealed to his colleagues to view the agreement in the context of its historic nature as well as the emerging strategic importance of India in global affairs.
"This agreement will create American jobs, burn less fossil fuels, grow our economies, enhance mutual trust, and greatly develop our strategic relationship with India. I urge your support of this historic agreement," he said in a letter to members of the House.
But three other Democratic lawmakers, Edward Markey, Ellen Tauscher and John Spratt, cautioned the Congress Friday against rushing through with a vote on the India deal that Bush wants approved before he leaves office in January.
"We strongly oppose rushing consideration of the proposal to adhere to an imaginary clock, since the process of full congressional oversight and deliberation necessarily and properly requires a significant investment of time," they said in a joint letter to Berman.
Meanwhile the Washington Post Friday editorially advised a "balking" Berman, "a long time sceptic of the deal" to find a way to help move the deal forward as "it is in America's interest."
"Berman is certainly right to subject this major shift in US policy to a searching inquiry. But we hope that he will ultimately find a way to help move it through Congress before Sep 26."
"The agreement has already been amply debated and discussed, and, on balance, it is in America's interest. US nuclear cooperation with India ceased after the latter's first nuclear test in 1974," it said.