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Senate loves India
- Nuclear deal sails through, opponents fail to find speakers

Washington, Oct. 2: The US Senate yesterday voted for the nuclear agreement with India 86-13 with an hour to spare and without enough speakers in opposition, leaving it now for President George W. Bush only to put his signature.

The debate and the subsequent vote was unique. But in the excitement of the deal entering its final lap here, it is easy to miss this historic nature of the Senate vote approving a change in the way America deals with India.

Politicians everywhere are known to speak more than they need to. Never less. But yesterday in the Senate they spoke for one hour less than the time allotted to them.

When the debate for approving the deal package began in the morning, three-and-a-half hours were allotted for the legislation: one hour for general debate, 15 minutes each for the movers of two amendments and one hour each for discussing the amendments.

But the debate ended one hour ahead of schedule, almost unheard of in the history of legislatures, even such rubber stamp legislatures as the Supreme Soviet of the USSR or the National People’s Congress of China.

The reason: opponents of the deal could not find enough people in the Senate to speak against extending America’s nuclear co-operation to cover India.

Some of those who voted against the deal because of their long-standing commitment to non-proliferation were only willing to cast their “nay” vote, but they did not want to take the floor and say anything against India. They argued in the corridors of the Capitol that they were not against India, but only against some provisions in the deal.

When the nuclear deal package was taken up on the floor at 10am, Senate aides were predicting a vote of 75 for the deal and 24 against in the 100-member chamber. Senator Edward Kennedy, who is recovering from surgery for a brain tumour, is not attending the session.

But as the debate advanced, they revised their prediction to 80 for and 19 against. Many believed that the tally would be lower for the deal than the 85 to 12 vote for the Hyde Act that enabled the nuclear deal to proceed in 2006. Two years ago, three senators were present, but did not cast their votes.

When the final figures were announced last night, it was 86 for the deal and 13 against. “You see, 86 per cent of the Senate voted for nuclear co-operation with India,” pointed out one Senate aide.

So the next time Manmohan Singh tells Bush, “India loves you”, the American can at least reply, “The Senate loves India.”

Indian diplomats noted that all three senators vying for the top political jobs in the US voted for the deal. They are Democratic presidential aspirant Barack Obama and his vice-presidential running mate Joseph Biden as well as the Republican nominee for the White House, John McCain.

“Their bipartisan vote is an indication of where America’s relations with India are headed, no matter who becomes President,” exulted an Indian diplomat.

A turning point in the debate came when the movers of two amendments designed to kill the deal joined forces and combined their amendments.

They put on a brave front and claimed that the bunching of the amendments was a way of joining forces on the floor. In fact, the amendments were combined because there would have been no speakers to use the allotted time of one hour each in support of two different amendments.

At that point it was clear that for the opponents of the deal the battle was lost. When the amendment was ballotted, it was rejected by a voice vote.

Its movers did not ask for a roll call for fear that their abysmal numbers would be exposed and that the game would be up for them without having to wait for the final vote on the nuclear package.

Obama, McCain and Biden cut short their election campaign to go to Capitol Hill to vote the economic rescue package of $700 billion. While they did not remain on the floor to vote for some other bills yesterday, all three men made it a point to come into the chamber and cast their votes for the India deal.

On the Indian side, the official who had the most satisfaction yesterday was Raminder S. Jassal, the deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy here.

He is the only official in the original “negotiating team” in 2005 — either on the US side or the Indian side — who is still on the job of steering the nuclear deal.

With the deal is expected to be operationalised by this weekend during US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s visit to New Delhi, Jassal will leave his job on Tuesday and move to Ankara as India’s new ambassador there.

At the time of writing, the nuclear package had not yet been transmitted to the White House for presidential assent because of the huge volume of work cleared by the Senate yesterday and by the House of Representatives the previous day that has to be “processed”.

This is expected to be done later today so that Bush can sign the deal on Friday in time for Rice’s departure for New Delhi.

Rice kept up the celebratory mood here today by organising a function to thank state department employees and others for their efforts to see the nuclear deal through.

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