The Senate is poised to take up the U.S.-India nuclear accord Wednesday, and could hand the Bush administration an unexpected foreign-policy success just before lawmakers head home for the year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Tuesday he was close to an agreement to let debate proceed on the controversial pact, which U.S. officials see as the centerpiece of new strategic alliance with one of the world's emerging economic and military powerhouses.
"I'm quite sure that we can finalize [an agreement] so that there can be a vote on that tomorrow," said Mr. Reid.
Over the objections of opponents who said the pact would undercut global efforts to restrain nuclear proliferation, the House passed the India agreement in a 298-117 vote Saturday. But it was not clear that the Senate would have time to act until lawmakers were kept in session to deal with the Wall Street credit crisis.
The agreement would end a ban on U.S. nuclear trade with India imposed shortly after New Delhi carried out a nuclear test in 1974 and refused to sign the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India would open up its civilian nuclear-power plants to international inspectors, although its military nuclear operations would still be off-limits.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been pushing hard for the agreement, calling lawmakers and visiting Capitol Hill to win votes.
"I certainly hope that it can get done, because it would be a landmark agreement for India and the United States, and it would be a way to solidify what has been an extraordinary period in which U.S.-Indian relations have reached the kind of deepening that is really appropriate for two of the world's largest and great democracies," she told reporters at the State Department Tuesday.
The increasingly influential Indian-American community has also pushed for the agreement, while most private nonproliferation activists have strongly opposed it. The Bush administration was able to secure a number of exemptions from international nuclear monitoring and nonproliferation rules to allow the agreement to proceed.
Congressional opponents accuse the administration of rushing through the amended agreement in the closing days of the legislative session.
"The Bush administration argues that breaking the nuclear rules for India will not lead to broken rules for anyone else, but they are wrong," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a leading voice on Capitol Hill against the deal, during the House debate.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the amended accord on a 19-2 vote after holding just a single hearing last month, with no opponents of the agreement or outside experts testifying.
Senate opponents are believed to have placed anonymous "holds" on the bill, preventing it from coming to the Senate floor. But Mr. Reid's statement indicated he was close to a deal to allow a debate to proceed. It is expected to pass comfortably if a vote is allowed.
The agreement has also proven politically divisive in India, where the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has faced divisions within his own ruling coalition that the agreement compromises India's sovereignty.