The stalled U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal faces a make-or-break hurdle Wednesday as warring factions within India's coalition government meet to decide whether to push ahead with the ambitious pact.
But top U.S. officials and private analysts are already talking as if the agreement, intended to be a centerpiece of President Bush's second-term foreign policy agenda, has little chance of passing before Mr. Bush leaves office in January.
"You can't quite say it's dead yet," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association and a critic of the nuclear pact.
"But it's somewhere between the intensive care unit and the morgue right now," he said.
With U.S. congressional approval still needed on any final deal, the protracted negotiations in New Delhi may mean that any accord will have to wait for the Obama or McCain administration.
"The reality, of course, is that every day that goes by is one less day on the legislative calendar for us to be able to have congressional action take place," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Monday.
"We'd like to believe that this deal is one that can and should be supported by whoever comes into office in January 2009, but, obviously, the next U.S. government will have to make their own decisions on it," the spokesman added.
Mr. Bush hailed the August 2007 accord as a major opportunity for U.S. exporters and an opening to build a much broader strategic and political alliance with one of the rising powers.
At its core, the deal would give New Delhi access to now-forbidden U.S. nuclear fuel and technology in return for allowing international oversight and inspection of India's civilian nuclear industry. India's military nuclear programs would not be covered by the deal.
Many U.S. critics saw the deal as highly favorable to India, but the accord has been unexpectedly caught up in a fierce political debate in New Delhi. Leftist parties have opposed the idea of a close relationship with Washington, while the leading opposition parties say the deal imposes unacceptable restraints on India's sovereignty.
If Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot persuade Communist parties in his minority government to back the deal, political analysts say the clash could bring down the government and force early elections this fall.
But with polls showing a rough political landscape for the government, Mr. Singh could decide to drop the nuclear deal or press for major changes. Both scenarios would deny Mr. Bush the foreign policy breakthrough he sought.
Although a revised deal could be resurrected in 2009, a new U.S. administration and new Congress will need time to consider the deal. But U.S. officials are already trying to minimize the fallout from the possible collapse of what was intended to be the symbolic and economic core of a new relationship between Washington and New Delhi.
U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford, in a recent interview with the Hindu newspaper, acknowledged the protracted nuclear debate had "sucked the oxygen out of everything else" in the bilateral relationship. But he said that commercial, economic and cultural ties between the two countries remain solid and growing.
Michael A. Levi and Charles D. Ferguson, fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. administration and Congress should push for a more modest agreement, warning in a study earlier this month that outright rejection of the deal "would have a real and negative effect on the bilateral relationship."