On Thursday, the United States Senate passed, by an overwhelming 85-12 majority, S.3709, the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act.
The bill 'exempts, subject to a specified determination by the President, from certain requirements of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 exports of nuclear material, equipment and technology from the United States and re-exports of such US-origin items to India'.
The US House of Representatives had, on July 26, passed its own version of the bill: HR5682, also known as the Henry J. Hyde United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006.
Though both bills drive towards the identical goal of facilitating Indo-US cooperation in the civilian nuclear technology sector, there are differences, mostly in language and occasionally in provisions, between the two, as is apparent when you compare the full text of both bills (HR 5682; S.3709).
This necessitates an additional step in the process: the senior leadership of both Houses of Congress will nominate members to a conference committee, which will meet to resolve differences between the two versions of the bill.
The final, unified bill that emerges from this committee will then be placed before President George W Bush for his signature; at that point, it will pass into law.
Thus far, there is no official word on when the conference committee will meet; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had indicated however that the President is keen to see the final bill before the 109th Congress ends its term, on December 31, 2006.
Indications are that the committee proceedings should be smooth. Support for the bill was overwhelming in both the House and Senate; that is reflective of the collective desire that the bill passes into law at the earliest.
Given this general goodwill, and bipartisan support, in favor of the bill, indications are the committee proceedings will be quick. It needs noting, too, that unlike during proceedings in the House and Senate, the conference committee will not introduce amendments triggering another round of debates - its brief is merely to fuse the two bills into one.
Indications are that an announcement on the composition, and timeline, of the conference committee could come early next week, at the latest.