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US Senate readies to takes up Indo-US nuclear bill

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Last updated on: November 16, 2006 11:30 IST
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It seems to be a case of so near, but yet so far -- that is, as to when the US Senate will finally take up the enabling legislation to facilitate the US-India civilian nuclear agreement on the floor for debate and a vote. 

Thus far, since the Senate convened on November 13, with both the Republican and Democratic leadership pledging to take it up almost immediately, it has been akin to waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett's absurdist drama. 

On Monday, both Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist and Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, in their opening statements in announcing the agenda of the lame-duck session vowed to take up the US-India nuclear legislation.

But it didn't happen on Monday, nor Tuesday, when once again they announced their intent to take up the bill, nor did it happen on Wednesday, even though they reiterated their intent at the beginning of the day's session to bring it on the floor. 

However, they reached what is known as Unanimous Consent, which is an agreement on the modalities of how the bill will be piloted once it's taken up on the floor for debate and an ultimate vote. 

Frist also announced that a Manager's Amendment had been agreed upon with Senators Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the ranking Democrat on the panel Joe Biden, the authors of the enabling legislation -- S. 3709 -- which meant that it would be their legislation that would be taken up and any amendments would be ones that would have to be added to it, and not freewheeling or independent pieces of legislation. 

So, in a sense, everything is on the launching pad for take-off, but the question is when will the blast off take place. The expectation is that it will be taken up on Thursday sometime and that it could spill over to all day Friday. 

But even this expectation could run into a roadblock, because Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, is peeved with Frist because he believes the latter has gone back on a promise to take up the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, and hence has put a hold on debate on the US-India nuke bill, until and unless work on his amendment to the agriculture legislation is completed. 

Conrad argued on Wednesday that on a promise made by Frist that he could attach his amendment to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill to be taken up on Wednesday, he had withdrawn his amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriation Bill -- that envisaged work on that bill to be completed on Tuesday. 

Consequently, when Frist tried to bring up the US-India nuclear agreement enabling legislation, Conrad went ballistic and put a halt to it using legislative maneuvers, including calling for quorum, which is a time-consuming mechanism. 

Meanwhile, several Indian-American community leaders from across the country who have been pushing for the bill to be taken up during the lame-duck session and have been promised by the Republican and Democratic leadership that it would be done on Tuesday, then Wednesday, and now Thursday, have been camping out in Washington, hoping to watch the historic debate on the floor of the Senate, but it has been this far, a case of so near but yet so far. 

Even if it is taken up on Thursday, there is no guarantee that work on it would be completed on Friday when the Senate adjourns for the Thanksgiving Holiday recess and returns only on December 4, for at most, another two weeks of the lame-duck session. 

This is because Frist after attempting to restrict the debate to six hours and six to eight amendments maximum, has thrown in the towel and agreed to as many amendments as the Democrats want to subsume the original legislation with. 

Reid for his part, also unable to convince his own Democratic colleagues -- emboldened by their success in taking back the Senate in the November 7 elections and also clearly to ensure their full support when he takes over as Majority Leader in January -- to keep the amendments to the minimum, has also allowed for a veritable free for all with the likes of Senators Russ Feingold, Byron Dorgan, Jeff Bingaman, Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, Barack Obama, readying themselves with a total of 18 amendments with Bingaman on the tracks with a record seven. 

Thus, filibustering is evidently going to be the order of the day -- if it's taken up on Thursday -- and Friday too, with all of these Senators, even if they ultimately vote for the Lugar-Biden bill, making sure they appease their various constituencies, including the non-proliferation lobby and making them aware that they fought the good fight on behalf of their professed non-proliferation commitments. 

An angry industry lobbyist, who organised Wednesday's policy luncheon on the US-Indian Civilian Nuclear Initiative, on behalf of The Coalition for Partnership with India, told rediff.com, "Frist is being weak-kneed, and Reid is being weak-kneed and that's why we have mobilised today to make sure this happens this week." 

Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, said, "The time is now for Senate passage of the US-India Civilian Nuclear Initiative." 

"We want it this week, before Congress goes home for Thanksgiving so that Congress has ample time to reconcile the House version and the Senate version and pass the conference legislation and have it up to the president for signature before the end of the lame-duck session." 

Erstwhile Senator William Cohen, and former defense secretary in the Clinton administration, who now has his own lobbying firm that represents several clients doing business in India and is also an ardent support of the US-India nuclear deal, also echoed Somers' sentiments, saying, "We can't wait until they come back in December and it surely cannot wait until they come back in January." 

"My hope and my prayer is that Congress will see the wisdom of not letting this slip by," he added. 

Cohen said the question is, If not now, when? And, if not with India, then who?

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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