WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced hope that a civilian nuclear pact with India will clear the last US legislative hurdle on Wednesday, saying it has "strong bipartisan support."
The deal, which would lift a three decade-old ban on civilian nuclear trade with India, would go to a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, after it passed the House of Representatives on Saturday, congressional staff said.
"I certainly hope that it can get done, because it would be a landmark agreement for India and the United States," said Rice, who has lobbied Congress hard to back the agreement.
Approval of the agreement, the top US diplomat said, "would be a way to solidify" what she called deepening relations between "two of the world's largest and great democracies."
Robert Wood, Rice's deputy spokesman, reckoned that chances were good that the deal would pass. "It's got strong bipartisan support. So we hope to see it happen," Wood told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said the deal would go before a Senate vote on Wednesday.
"We will have a vote tomorrow evening on two amendments and final passage of the US-India cooperation deal," she told AFP.
The amendments were related to "the subject of US responses in the event of a future Indian nuclear test," Lachapelle said, without elaborating.
India has argued that it has the sovereign right to conduct such a test, while Washington has said the deal would be off if one were carried out.
The House of Representatives on Saturday passed the pact with by a 298-117 vote.
Signed by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, the deal offers India access to Western technology and cheap atomic energy in return for New Delhi allowing UN inspections of some of its nuclear facilities.
A positive vote would finally end a three decades-old ban on nuclear trade with India imposed after it carried out its first nuclear test in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But critics fear that the deal with India will set a bad example to Iran and other countries they suspect are seeking a nuclear bomb.
For the last few weeks, Rice and other administration officials has been telephoning and meeting with members of both houses of the Democrat-controlled Congress to ensure them that the agreement carries proper safeguards.
"I think we're all done with that (providing reassurances). Obviously, if there needs to be any further reassurances of materials provided, we will do it," a State Department official told reporters.
"We're not guaranteed that it's going to happen, obviously, but we're optimistic, and we've worked hard to sell this agreement to Congress," the official said on the condition of anonymity.
During the vote at the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to allay any lasting concerns, saying the legislation would boost US oversight on any US civilian nuclear assistance to the South Asian nation.
She welcomed the vote saying in a statement that the accord "furthers our countries' strategic relationship while balancing nuclear non-proliferation concerns and India's growing energy needs.