WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday with India's defense minister and continued a push to persuade senior Democratic lawmakers to embrace quick passage of a U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation accord. The State Department said Rice hoped to formally send Congress the deal, one of President George W. Bush's top foreign policy initiatives, by the end of the day.
With only about three weeks remaining before Congress leaves for the rest of the year, the Bush administration needs lawmakers' help to overcome a law that requires Congress to wait 30 working days after receiving the deal before it could be ratified.
Rice was to meet Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She also met Tuesday with the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, and the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to discuss the accord, which would reverse three decades of U.S. policy by shipping atomic fuel to India in return for international inspections of India's civilian reactors.
Lawmakers are scheduled to leave Washington at the end of the month to campaign for November elections that will determine the next U.S. president and the political future of many current members of Congress. Barring passage of legislation to scrap the 30-day waiting period, Congress does not appear to have enough days left to ratify the deal.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Wednesday that officials were still going through the internal U.S. "clearance process" necessary to formally transmit a deal from the executive to the legislative branch. India was also still working to complete final paper work needed to include in the deal submitted to Congress, he said.
McCormack said Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony and Rice were to discuss the nuclear deal and U.S.-Indian military cooperation. Antony did not respond to reporters' questions ahead of his meeting with Rice.
Some in Congress are vowing a careful review of U.S.-Indian nuclear negotiations, which could doom the plan's passage this year. That would leave it in the hands of a new Congress and president, and it is unclear whether it would remain a priority.
Berman, who supports nuclear cooperation, has said that if the administration wants to speed congressional consideration, it must deal first with address problems some lawmakers have, such as what an Indian nuclear test would mean for the deal.
India has refused to sign nonproliferation agreements and has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974. But on Saturday, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations that supply nuclear material and technology agreed to lift the ban on civilian nuclear trade with India after contentious talks and some concessions to countries fearful it could set a dangerous precedent.
U.S. officials have said that selling peaceful nuclear technology to India would bring the country's atomic program under closer scrutiny. Critics say it would ruin global efforts to stop the spread of atomic weapons and boost India's nuclear arsenal.
Both presidential contenders, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have indicated support for the accord, but it is not clear that either would give it the same attention that Bush has.