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Republicans, Democrats fight over N-bill

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September 27, 2006 12:36 IST
A major partisan tussle has broken out between the Senate Republicans and Democrats over the enabling legislation to facilitate the US-India civilian nuclear deal. This disagreement could kill the chances of the bill being taken up for floor debate and a vote before the Congress adjourns later this week to prepare for the November elections -- with each party blaming the other for the impasse.

It all started then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, put out a statement on Tuesday morning after alleging that the Democrats had blocked the unanimous consent proposal for consideration of the US-India civil cooperation bill.

Frist stated, "Last night, I offered a unanimous consent agreement to ensure that the Senate could complete consideration of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation legislation in a reasonable period of time. However, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle objected."

He argued, "The enactment of this legislation is critical to advancing US-India relations and will help create export opportunities for American businesses."

Frist said, "We need time to work out the differences with the companion legislation passed by the House. Therefore, the Senate cannot afford to wait until November to pass this critical piece of legislation."

"I call on my Democratic colleagues to work with us to develop a unanimous consent agreement to enable the Senate to consider this important measure on the floor this week," he implored.

An incensed Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, later in the afternoon accused the Republicans of being the ones who had blocked his unanimous consent proposal "...that would have guaranteed Senate consideration of an a final vote on the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation bill before Congress adjourns for the November elections."

In almost a clone of a statement to that of Frist's, Reid said that he had offered a unanimous consent agreement to ensure that the Senate could complete work on the US-India nuclear deal before Congress left town this week, but "...unfortunately, the Republican Leader objected to the proposal."

He asserted, "Senate Democrats have been strong supporters of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation bill since the Administration announced this proposal in March and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it (overwhelmingly by a margin of 16-2) in June.

Unfortunately, since this bill was favorably acted on by the Foreign Relations Committee, the Republican Leader chose to bring 16 different legislative matters to the Senate floor rather than this important legislation, which is critical to the US-India relationship."

Reid alleged, "The facts are that Republican differences over the substance of this bill have delayed its consideration and some of those disagreements have still not been resolved, as I learned last evening in my discussions with Senator Frist. I would encourage people following this debate to review the complete transcript of our discussion last evening."

"I do believe it is important for the Senate to act on this matter without further delay," he said. "Its passage would mean so much to the vitally important US-India relationship. I pledge to do what I can to ensure that we do just that. I hope the Majority Leader will not pass up yet another opportunity to get this bill done."

Senior Congressional sources close to Reid told that the minority leader is committed to getting the bill done and in fact, had spoken on Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and last week with Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and assured them that there is a lot of support for it by the Democrats."

One source said, "What he told Senator Frist is that we need two things -- one, if we are not going to use the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported bill (S.3709, authored by Republican Senator from Indiana Richard Lugar, chair of the SFRC and Democratic Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden) because they (the Republican conservatives in the Senate) don't like Title II (also known as the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol) and are not going to use the House bill either, we are going to have some kind of a hybrid and we need to agree on a text."

"There is still no agreed text so it's hard for us to move anywhere without an agreed text," the source said.

Assuming that there is agreement on a text, the source explained, "The Senators need to offer and be heard on their amendments. These are not poison pills. These are attempts to let Senators speak -- have a general debate. The minority has some rights here and we think it's appropriate given the significance of the legislation and the relationship between the countries' people, they need to speak on this and they deserve to be heard."

Sources said Reid and the senior Democrats, including Biden were also furious that the Republicans had worked on the modification of the Title II provision language among themselves in consultation with the Bush Administration and agreed to such a modification without consulting with or letting on regarding what this language was with the Democratic leadership, including Biden, the co-author.

"They reached a unilateral agreement -- the administration and the conservative Senators without consulting any of the Democrats on any of the modified language, so we had absolutely no clue on what the language is. So when we found out, we objected to the modification,"the sources said. "Although the Republicans say that the Title II problem has been resolved, it has not been resolved in a bipartisan way. It has only been resolved in a partisan way."

The sources said, "We were working in good-faith but Frist undercut our efforts even while we were trying to work out a compromise (regarding the number of amendments to be introduced and the time allocated for the debate)."

But sources close to Frist said, the Democrats were asking for far too much time for floor debate and had several amendments on tap, and with the pressing need for time to deal with other pressing domestic legislation, their demands were not tenable.

They also accused the Democrats of  unduly blocking the modification to the Title II language which had been worked out among the conservative Republican Senators who had earlier put a hold on the bill because of their concerns over this provision, but had now resolved it and were willing to have the legislation brought to the floor for debate and a vote before the end of the week.

On Monday night on the Senate floor, Frist argued for the modified amendment with regard to Title II and five other amendments (four by Democrats and one by a Republican) be agreed to with one hour of debate on each amendment and one hour of general debate on the bill, "...all equally divided in the usual form."

He said, "Following the passage of the bill," the Senate chair request a conference with the House and appoint conferees to S. 3709 so that a House-Conference date can be nailed down.

Reid said that the amendments to be introduced by the Democrats were "manageable amendments and few in number and I think we can complete this legislation very quickly."

But he said, "We have a situation where the manager's amendment, had not been worked out yet between Lugar and Biden and added, "These are two of the most senior members of the Senate and I hope they can do that in the near future."

Swadesh Chatterjee, the North Carolina-based entrepreneur and community activist, who formed the US-India Friendship Council specifically to lobby and push through the US-India nuclear bill, "We are so tired and fed up and utterly frustrated over these back and forth statements. We had been hoping to have this bill on the floor and voted on before the Senate winds up its work on Saturday and earlier we had been promised that this would be the case."

However Chatterjee, a close friend of Biden, told, "We are continuing with our efforts and we are putting tremendous pressure on both sides of the aisle to come to an agreement."

"So we are still very hopeful that it will happen and we can have a vote before the Congress adjourns for the election. There is no reason the bill should not come to the floor, just because of the Title II -- which has nothing to do with the US-India civil nuclear cooperation bill," he said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington

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