- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

U.S. backers of a civilian nuclear deal with India say they plan a major lobbying push over the next month to ensure a final vote on the bill before Congress adjourns for the year, after the Senate failed to take up the measure before it left town last week.

Bush administration officials, calling the deal a centerpiece of a new strategic relationship with India, are hoping the Senate will vote on the enabling legislation for the pact early in the planned lame-duck session set to take place soon after the Nov. 7 congressional elections.

Sanjay Puri, executive director of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, said his group was “obviously disappointed” about the Senate’s failure to act, but he added he was “cautiously optimistic” that the deal remained on track for passage this year.

“There’s good support on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “The issue now is just to get the bill on the calendar for a vote.”

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said Monday that the administration was “sorry” the Senate vote did not come off last week.

“We were really hoping it would be voted on,” Mr. Burns said in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times. He described the nuclear pact as key to the burgeoning relationship between Washington and New Delhi, strongly backed by President Bush.

The agreement struck by Mr. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005 would end a U.S. ban on nuclear trade and cooperation with India, which has not signed the international treaty on nuclear nonproliferation. India, in turn, would open its nonmilitary nuclear sites to international inspection for the first time.

The House passed its version of the bill in July. Even if the Senate votes in the lame-duck session, lawmakers still must reconcile the differing House and Senate versions of the bill.

Failure to send the bill to the White House before the end of the year would mean the new Congress elected in November would have to start the process from the beginning next year.

Supporters such as Mr. Puri argue that the agreement could cement ties with an emerging South Asian economic and military power, while opening the way to billions of dollars in business for U.S. firms. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has lobbied energetically in support of the accord.

But opponents say the deal would blow a huge hole in efforts to contain nuclear weapons, spur a South Asian arms race and undermine U.S. efforts to rally support against the nuclear programs of Iran and other adversaries.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said last week that Senate Democrats had failed to agree to an expedited debate on the bill in the closing days of the regular session. But Capitol Hill staffers said part of the delay was due to reservations by Republican lawmakers over an unrelated provision added to the bill regarding U.S. obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The delay has drawn criticism in India, where opposition groups say the Singh government gave up too much to secure the deal with Washington.

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