United States Senator Robert Byrd, the 91-year-old Democratic lawmaker from West Virginia, may very well have scuttled any chance of the India-US 123 civilian nuclear cooperation agreement being ratified by the Congress to coincide with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's meeting with President George W Bush in the White House Oval Office on September 25.
Highly-placed Congressional sources told rediff.com that Byrd is vehemently opposed to attaching the India-US nuclear bill to any omnibus 'Continuing Resolution on appropriations' which was the vehicle being strongly considered by the Senate leadership, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, to push through the ratification of the deal before Congress adjourns on September 26.
It is now highly likely that the session may be extended till the first week of October so that the massive $700 billion financial bailout package, to alleviate the financial tsunami that has hit some of the most venerable investment banks in the country, can be finalised.
The sources said that Byrd has rejected any such bills being appended to the CR. If anything is attached at all, it will be amendments to bail out homeowners and other ordinary Americans on Main Street, who have been hit by this financial tsunami.
According to sources, no one "wants to mess with this guy". He is perceived as the quintessential expert on filibustering and could tie up the Senate in knots if he is not accommodated.
Byrd and a few other Senators were part of the 'Dirty Dozen' who voted against the enabling legislation -- known as the Hyde Act -- two years ago to facilitate the India-US deal. They are resisting any 'unanimous consent' to waive the 30-day requirement of a consultation period to get the 123 Agreement through before Congress adjourns. This has left the Senate leadership of Reid and others, who are pushing for the agreement to be expedited, in a bind.
Sources said the other Senators who were opposed to unanimous consent were Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and Daniel Akaka, Hawaii Democrat. These lawmakers want amendments ranging from asking India to end any military cooperation with Iran to an unambiguous commitment that the deal would be immediately terminated if India tests.
Indian American community activists and pro-India lobbyists told rediff.com that all this does not mean the deal is dead in this session. But it could be dragged into an extended session or a lame-duck session if the Senate decides to return after the November elections, because there are many bills yet to be taken up.
One source said that this was the reason the CR would have been the perfect vehicle because "one thing that is certain is that although there is so-much horse-trading going on with regard to the ($700 billion) bail-out package, you can be sure it will ultimately get done and done sooner than later."
After last week's hearing, Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Dodd, who is the acting chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had indicated that there could be a mark-up of the 123 Agreement sometime early in the week so that it could be sent to the floor for action. But there was nothing on the Committee's schedule with regard to the India-US deal.
Indian American activists who had reached out to California Democrat Congressman Howard Berman, who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, were hopeful that he would attach a resolution of approval of the 123 Agreement to a House version of a CR, and in this case no mark-up was mandatory and it could be taken up for a vote on the House floor.
Indian American activists said they had also met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on at least three occasions. Several friends of India like Congressman Gary Ackerman, Joe Crowley, Joe Wilson, Ed Royce, all current and former Democratic and Republican co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans were pushing for the bill or Resolution of Approval being taken up so that it could be completed to coincide with Dr Singh's arrival in Washington, DC.
But even though Pelosi was amenable and indications were that Berman would deliver, other sources, particularly those in the nonproliferation lobby, told rediff.com that it was possible that there could be language included in the Resolution of Approval that would not be palatable to India.
Dr Singh himself had clearly asserted on arrival in Frankfurt en route to the US that the 123 Agreement was non-negotiable. "India hopes that the integrity of the 123 Agreement currently in the Congress is not compromised in any manner," he said.
One senior Congressional source told rediff.com that "Berman is doing something," and added that it was possible there could be language raising his concerns over the agreement.
The source also said that once the Resolution of Approval is attached to a CR, "it's really not amendable."
"For example, if Berman is going to attach it to the CR, it's not going to be amendable and if the administration wants it, they are going to have to take what he gives them. So, it could be all shades of gray and something at that stage cannot be changed," he said.
Sources both in the House and the Senate said that with all of what's going on in terms of dealing with the financial storm, its unlikely that there could be a free-standing bill on the 123 Agreement in either chamber.
Berman's press secretary and communications director of the Foreign Affairs Committee Lynne Weil told rediff.com, "Chairman Berman is considering the matter with the Congressional leadership, with his colleagues and with the administration."
She recalled that "he voted for the Hyde Act and supports civilian nuclear cooperation with India. He is discussing legislation that will waive the 30-day requirement -- but it must be legislation that strikes the right balance to attract sufficient Congressional support, and he is working out the details."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and the coordinator of the nonproliferation groups and organisations that are against the deal, told rediff.com, "It's really crazy if you think about what's going on Capitol Hill right now -- they've got to try to approve a $700 billion bail-out for the banks, they've got to close off several appropriations bills and they've got other substantive issues to deal with."
"So, I think they deserve a little bit of understanding for not being able to put this thing on the top of their agenda," he argued.
Kimball said all of the rush was "for Manmohan Singh's personal credibility and it's all about his election chances. I think what the pro-deal people are worried about is that Singh might lose and if he loses, who knows what the Opposition will do."
"Of course, on the US side, it's all about Bush being more worried about his legacy," he added citing his rationale for the Administration trying to rush the deal through without the requisite 30-day consultation period.
Earlier, Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had said, "Given the need to waive most of the 30-day consultation period, a simple, privileged resolution is unavailable to us. Amendments will be in order, and there is no guarantee of a vote on final passage."