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Democrats give nuke hope

Washington, Nov. 9: An outpouring of support from resurgent Congressional Democrats for the Indo-US nuclear deal has given legislation in the Senate for implementing the agreement between prime minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush a new lease of life.

Even as the Democrats tightened their grip on Capitol Hill last night by winning an absolute majority in the Senate, the man who would be the party’s leader in the new 100-member chamber told reporters that the deal with India was one of five things he wanted done during the Senate’s “lame duck” session next week.

“India is the largest democracy in the world,” Harry Reid told reporters. “We want to work with them, and this is important we move along that line.”

Reid said his five priorities were: a bill to cope with the danger of a pandemic flu, agreement with the House of Representatives on offshore drilling for oil, approval of the Indo-US nuclear deal, tax extensions and appropriation bills.

Bush, who listed the deal yesterday as one of his priorities during the “lame duck” session, also wants a bill granting permanent normal trade relations status to Vietnam passed before a presidential trip to Hanoi next week.

A reconciliation of the Bush agenda and the priorities of the new Senate’s leadership would mean the Indo-US deal could be fourth in the list of business for the Senate session, sources on Capitol Hill said.

If the agenda is not completed next week, the Senate could once again convene for a second “lame duck” session in December.

Next week’s session is called “lame duck” because the newly-elected chamber will convene only in January and the existing Senate has to continue legislative buisness until the new one is constituted.

Senator Joseph Biden, who will become chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, also told reporters that he was willing to push the bill through immediately. “I think we are ready to do it. I am ready to go,” Biden said.

But he said everything depended on the Republicans and urged them to be “mature enough to say the voters have spoken”.

With the last Senate result from Virginia going in favour of the Democrats, enabling them to control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, Biden’s party is, however, unlikely to make compromises with their opponents on amendments to the bill or on issues of procedure.

Such all-round support for the deal does not, however, mean that India can sit back and assume its smooth passage in the Senate.

Tom Lantos, Democrat who will become chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee in January, described the nuclear deal as a “a historic event”. But he added a rider to his statement. :Whether we do it in December or February (in the new Congress) is really secondary, but I am convinced that we should do it.”

That means Lantos, a holocaust survivor for whom India’s ties with Iran are red rags before a bull, will be closely watching the forthcoming visit of Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Mottaki to New Delhi next week.

Much will also depend on the difficult negotiations this week in New Delhi between Indian and US officials on the so-called 123 agreement, which is essential to complete Congressional action on the deal.

The 123 agreement, so-called because it is under section 123 of America’s Atomic Energy Act, will set out the parameters of nuclear cooperation between New Delhi and Washington.

Nicholas Burns, Bush’s pointman for negotiations with India on the deal, was to have gone to New Delhi this weekend for talks with his Indian counterpart, Shyam Saran and the new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon.

Burns has postponed his trip till November end and will be available here for finetuning the Congressional process if the Senate takes up the deal next week.

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