- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

Congress and the Bush administration are making a strong last-minute push to approve the far-reaching nuclear cooperation deal with India, a top Senate Democrat said Thursday.

“We’re going to use every minute of every day we have left to see if we can get a deal,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.

Mr. Dodd chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which Undersecretary of State William Burns pushed for congressional approval of the pact, which is considered the centerpiece of a new strategic relationship between the United States and one of the world’s emerging economic superpowers.

The deal, one of the top foreign policy priorities of President Bush’s second term, would open the way to billions of dollars in civilian nuclear trade with India, despite the fact that India has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Critics say the deal would drive a massive hole through the global effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

Passage of the agreement before Congress adjourns in the next week or so had been considered a long shot, but Mr. Dodd said he thought there was a chance it could be approved. Failure to vote on the measure would push passage into the next Congress and the new administration.

Mr. Burns told the Senate panel, “Our hope is that Congress will be able to move this in this session.”

Mr. Bush has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House on Sept. 25. Mr. Singh has pushed the nuclear deal despite heavy opposition from parts of his own governing coalition.

Mr. Dodd said he doubted there was time on the legislative calendar for a free-standing vote on the nuclear deal, but said it could be added to the omnibus spending bill Congress must pass to keep the government running before it adjourns for the year.

“It would probably have to be in the continuing resolution,” he told reporters after the committee hearing Thursday. “There’s a lot of issues going on.”

It’s not clear whether opponents will allow the India deal to be swept into the spending bill. Several lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, expressed opposition to the agreement during the hearing, and Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, is a leading House voice against the deal.

Mr. Dodd said any agreement to approve the India nuclear deal this year would have to carve out time for opponents to express their reservations.

“If we don’t give people a chance to express their doubts about the agreement, we could end up creating a perfect storm to defeat it,” he said.

One question mark hanging over the vote is whether lawmakers will impose additional amendments or restrictions on U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation, which could create political difficulties for the Indian government.