WASHINGTON – The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate expressed confidence Tuesday that senators could vote on a U.S.-India nuclear cooperation accord as early as Wednesday, improving chances of passage for the landmark pact as lawmakers rush to finish work for the year.
The House of Representatives approved the accord Saturday, but it has stalled in the Senate, where at least one lawmaker, acting anonymously, has used the Senate's rules to block it from coming to a vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues on the Senate floor, "We're still working on agreement to consider" the pact, one of President George W. Bush's foreign policy priorities.
But, he said, "I'm quite sure we can finalize that so there can be a vote" on Wednesday.
Lawmakers are trying to deal with a financial crisis before they leave Washington to campaign for November elections. But Reid has ratcheted up pressure for quick action on the India deal, suggesting that he might call senators back to work in about two weeks for a vote on the accord if objections are not cleared up soon.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters Tuesday at the State Department, praised the efforts of Reid and other senior lawmakers. "I very much hope that it can get done," Rice said. "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."
Opponents, meanwhile, are urging the Senate not to rush a deal that would reverse three decades of U.S. nuclear policy by allowing American civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for safeguards and U.N. inspections at India's civilian nuclear plants; military plants would be off-limits.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said "legislators should understand what they're voting for before they vote on it. This has not been fully vetted."
The deal, which is supported by senior lawmakers of both political parties, received a boost this month when the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries that supply nuclear material and technology agreed to lift a ban on civilian nuclear trade with India.
Critics say opening India to new nuclear material would spark an atomic arms race in Asia by allowing India to use the extra nuclear fuel that the deal would provide to free up domestic uranium for its weapons program.
India built its bombs outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides civil nuclear trade in exchange for a pledge from nations not to pursue nuclear weapons. The country has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974.
Lawmakers must overcome a U.S. law that says they may not ratify the accord for 30 working days after receiving it from Bush on Sept. 10. Lawmakers also were required to hold hearings to study the deal. The Senate's single hearing included only Bush administration officials and no outside witnesses or critics of the deal.
After the House approved the accord, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey said it was "outrageous that such a critical vote, one that will forever change the global nonproliferation regime, was taken without the benefit of full congressional review and oversight, as required by the law."
Sharon Squassoni, a nonproliferation analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the deal has been "a case study in how things should not be done."
"This kind of congressional approval is a farce, and the reason why it's happening is the tremendous political pressure being exerted by the Bush administration on behalf of the Indian government" and Indian-American political action committees, Squassoni said.