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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday launched an all-out effort to persuade the U.S. Congress to approve this year an agreement to end the three-decade ban on U.S. nuclear trade with India.
Rice paid a relatively rare visit to Capitol Hill to call on House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman to discuss how to win Congress' blessing before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office on January 20.
With the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, Pelosi and Berman, both from California, are key players in deciding whether U.S. lawmakers will vote on the deal this year and hand Bush a foreign policy victory in his final months.
"We think that there is a possibility of getting this passed this year and we are going to do everything we possibly can," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "Whether it does or not, it's not going to be for lack of effort."
McCormack said Rice hoped the State Department can send the paperwork to Congress within the next 24 to 48 hours. For it to do so, India must also take a number of steps to satisfy U.S. legal requirements.
As part of her effort, Rice has spoken to the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress as well as to key lawmakers on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees, the spokesman said.
The Bush administration took a major step toward enacting the agreement on Saturday when it secured the approval by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of a U.S. proposal to lift the global ban on nuclear trade with nuclear-armed India.
U.S. congressional blessing is the last hurdle to the deal, which the Bush administration believes will forge a strategic partnership with the world's largest democracy, help India meet its burgeoning energy demand and open a nuclear market worth billions of dollars.
But the agreement has raised international misgivings because India has shunned the Non-Proliferation Treaty meant to stop the spread and production of nuclear weapons and a companion international agreement banning nuclear tests.
Critics believe the deal undermines efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and sets a precedent allowing other nations to seek to buy such technology without submitting to the full range of global nonproliferation safeguards.
Before sending the deal to Congress, the administration must certify India has made "substantial progress" toward an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on an "additional protocol" of safeguards to verify it is using civilian nuclear facilities only for peaceful purposes.
It must also certify that India has formally adhered to the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary pact that aims to limit the spread of ballistic missile technology.
Once the agreement has been sent to Congress, under current law it must remain for 30 days before it can be voted on.
Given that Congress is expected to adjourn by the end of September so lawmakers can campaign for the November 4 U.S. election, there is not enough time to meet the 30-day requirement without a "lame duck" session after the election.
Congressional aides said there were ways to circumvent the 30-day requirement but all required the solid support of the Democratic leadership of both houses of Congress.
"We have a long list of things to do and not a lot of time to do them," said a congressional aide who spoke on condition that he not be named. "Waiving the 30-day rule ... could be very problematic."
Editing by Kristin Roberts and Mohammad Zargham