The financial bailout was not the only issue U.S. senators were grappling with Wednesday; the Senate also planned to vote during the evening on a civilian nuclear agreement with India, a key foreign policy goal of the Bush administration.
The deal would open up a multibillion-dollar market for U.S. energy companies, but there are lingering concerns about what it means for efforts to stop the spread of sensitive technology.
Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the deal as something much more than just a chance for U.S. companies to sell nuclear technology to India for the first time since India tested a nuclear weapon in 1974.
"This bill enables the United States and India to chart a new course in relations between our two great democracies," Dodd said. "There are compelling geopolitical reasons to move forward with this relationship. India has become a major actor in the world."
India has also become a country with dramatically rising energy demands.
Dodd tried to ease concerns among some of his colleagues about the technical aspects of trading in nuclear technology with a country that never signed the nonproliferation treaty.
Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican and a senator with a long record of support for nonproliferation, also put his weight behind the deal.
"This agreement will allow India to receive nuclear fuel, technology and reactors from the United States — benefits that were previously denied to India because of its status outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," Lugar said. "The benefits of this pact are designed to be a lasting incentive for India to abstain from further nuclear weapons tests and to cooperate closely with the United States in stopping proliferation."
Lugar said to get to this point, India has created a new national export control system, promised to maintain a nuclear testing moratorium and will put its civilian facilities under international safeguards.
But Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) says India will still have eight reactors "behind a curtain."
Dorgan says this is "a green light to say, 'You may produce additional nuclear weapons.' That is not just a supposition. Almost everyone understands that is going to happen, and by the way, this agreement does not prohibit them from nuclear tests. This agreement is very ambiguous about that."
Bush administration officials have said that nuclear trade would be cut off if India tests another nuclear weapon, and they deny that they gave away too much in negotiations with India. Still, Dorgan feels the deal was rushed and sends the wrong signal.
"This message is you can misuse American nuclear technology and secretly develop nuclear weapons, you can test those weapons, you can build a nuclear arsenal in defiance of U.N. resolutions and you will be welcomed as someone showing good behavior with an agreement with the United States of America," Dorgan said. "What kind of message is that?"
Dorgan said the U.S. will one day look back on the deal with regret.
But while he complained the congressional debate on the deal was too short, business lobbyists said Congress needed to act quickly so that U.S. companies won't lose out to Russian and French competitors vying for contracts in India's multibillion-dollar nuclear energy sector.
India is also planning to boost defense spending, and lobbyists argue that good ties with Washington could translate into big contracts for American companies in that field as well.