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Senate sleeps on nuke deal

Washington, Sept. 30: The US Senate has practically done the bidding of India’s Left parties and the BJP on the nuclear front.

Unintentionally and by force of circumstances, the second chamber of America’s legislature has gone along with the demand by some of India’s Opposition parties that the Indo-US nuclear deal should not be implemented.

The Senate adjourned for mid-term elections to both Houses of the US Congress in the wee hours today without taking up the Indo-US nuclear deal for discussion or for a vote.

There was hope until 2.30 am on the final day of the Senate’s regular session that the deal between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush may come up at the eleventh hour.

But procedural and political wrangles undermined hectic efforts to secure rushed passage of enabling legislation to implement the deal. Such legislation has already been approved by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives.

India is quietly putting out the spin that the Senate will approve the deal when it meets briefly in a “lame duck” session in November after the elections to complete unfinished work. But this is by no means guaranteed. For now, it appears that the entire process of bringing the benefits of the nuclear deal may not come to India during Manmohan Singh’s current term.

Even after the Senate passes the bill at some stage, its version of the legislation will have to be reconciled with the one passed by the House of Representatives. That process is done by a “conference” of both chambers.

Congressional aides said the Senate and House versions of the bill are so different, and what India wants is so different from what various lobbies on Capitol Hill are seeking, that the “conference” process may take up to a year. This agreed version has to go for presidential assent to become law.

An immediate setback of the Senate adjournment is that a meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), in Vienna in October, will not take another look at the deal.

US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher, who was in Vienna recently, has told colleagues in the state department that the NSG was disinclined to consider changing the rules for India at its next meeting. That sentiment will be strengthened after the Senators put off their vote.

Although Delhi invested considerable effort in the nuclear deal, the Senate setback will not come as a surprise to South Block.

When US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met defence minister Pranab Mukherjee in New York a few days ago, she gave no assurance of the deal’s immediate passage in the Senate, according to a secret record of the meeting seen by The Telegraph.

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