The US Senate has overwhelmingly endorsed a plan allowing the US to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India, handing President George W. Bush an important victory on one of his top foreign policy initiatives.
Senior lawmakers from both political parties championed the proposal, which reverses decades of US anti-proliferation policy, saying it strengthens a key relationship with a friendly Asian power that has long maintained what the US considers a responsible nuclear program. Thursday's vote was 85-12.
Republican Senator Richard Lugar called the plan "a lasting incentive" for India to shun future nuclear weapons tests. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden said the Senate's endorsement pushes America "a giant step closer" to a shift in US-Indian relations that "will increase the prospect for stability and progress in South Asia and in the world at large."
Bush, in a statement made during a trip to Singapore, praised the Senate for endorsing his plan, saying it will "bring India into the international nuclear nonproliferation mainstream and will increase the transparency of India's entire civilian nuclear program."
His remarks were echoed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Vietnam with the president for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders.
"This really does open up an extraordinary new era, both in US-Indian relations, but also I think for the many interests that will served, from the economic point of view, from an energy point of view and from a nonproliferation point of view," she said.
Even with the strong approval by the Senate, however, several hurdles loom before India and the US could begin civil nuclear trade.
First on that list, lawmakers in the House of Representatives, which overwhelmingly endorsed the plan in July, and the Senate must now reconcile their versions into a single bill before the next congressional session begins in January. That bill would then be sent to Bush for his signature.
Critics argued that the plan would ruin the world's nonproliferation regime and boost India's nuclear arsenal. The extra civilian nuclear fuel that the deal would provide, they say, could free India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons program. Pakistan and China could respond by increasing their nuclear stockpiles, sparking a regional arms race.
Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan called the agreement "a horrible mistake" that "provides a green light" for India to produce more nuclear weapons. "I believe one day we will look back at this with great regret," he said.
During debate on Thursday, supporters beat back changes they said would have killed the proposal by making it unacceptable to India. Critics said the changes were necessary to guard against nuclear proliferation.
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer unsuccessfully proposed a condition that would have required India to cut off military-to-military ties with Iran before allowing civil nuclear cooperation.
Congressman Ed Markey, a Democratic critic in the House, said the Senate's endorsement of the proposal "sends the wrong signal at a time when the world is trying to prevent Iran from getting" a nuclear bomb.
The plan, he said, would set "a precedent that other nations can invoke when they seek nuclear cooperation with countries that also refuse to abide by nonproliferation rules."