Senate's Top Democrat Backs US-India Nuclear Deal

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The Senate's top Democrat will press for passage this year of a U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation accord, his spokesman said Thursday, boosting prospects for the landmark agreement to be ratified before President Bush leaves office.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who met Wednesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "will try to find a way to move it forward" this year, spokesman Jim Manley said. The accord, one of Bush's top foreign policy initiatives, would reverse three decades of U.S. policy by shipping atomic fuel to India in return for international inspections of India's civilian reactors.

The support of lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Senate and House of Representatives is crucial because only about three weeks remain before Congress is scheduled to recess for the year to campaign for Nov. 4 elections. The Bush administration needs lawmakers' help to overcome a law that says Congress may not ratify the accord for 30 working days after receiving it. Without passage of legislation to scrap the waiting period, Congress does not appear to have enough days left to ratify the deal.

Bush sent the agreement to Congress late Wednesday. The White House announced Thursday that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet with Bush later this month in Washington as the two leaders push for approval of the accord.

India, meanwhile, has begun talks with U.S. companies on purchasing nuclear technology and equipment and said it was looking to strike nuclear agreements with other countries, including France and Russia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that American companies having a "level playing field in the civilian nuclear industry in India has been very much a part of our discussion with India and with the Congress."

A time-consuming review by lawmakers could doom the plan's passage this year. That would leave it in the hands of a new Congress and president taking office in January, and it is unclear whether the agreement would remain a priority. However, both presidential contenders, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have expressed support for the accord, and it has enjoyed backing among senior lawmakers from both parties.

India has refused to sign nonproliferation agreements and has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974. But last week, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries that supply nuclear material and technology agreed to lift the ban on civilian nuclear trade with India, the last necessary step before Congress could consider the deal.

Supporters say the accord will strengthen economic, military and diplomatic ties with an emerging Asian power and will bring a new source of energy to a fast-growing country working to lift millions out of poverty. Opponents say the extra fuel the measure provides could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic uranium for weapons. That, they say, could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia.