updated 7/26/2006 9:50:30 PM ET 2006-07-27T01:50:30

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to allow U.S. shipments of civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India, handing President Bush a major victory on one of his top foreign policy initiatives.

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Rep. Tom Lantos said the proposal, which reverses decades of U.S. anti-proliferation policy, is "a tidal shift in relations between India and the United States."

"We are at a hinge of history, as we seek to build a fundamentally new relationship," said Lantos, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and a strong champion of the plan.

Wednesday's vote was 359 to 68.

The Senate has yet to vote on the plan, which must clear several more hurdles before nuclear trade between the two countries could begin.

For Bush to implement his accord with India, he needs lawmakers to exempt New Delhi from U.S. laws that bar nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full international inspections.

Congressional action is crucial because India built its nuclear weapons program outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides civil nuclear trade in exchange for a pledge from nations not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Several lawmakers strongly questioned the initiative, arguing that it would undermine the world's premier nonproliferation treaty and could lead to the United States supporting a massive increase in India's nuclear stockpile.

Democratic Congressman Ed Markey portrayed it as a "historic failure" that "pours nuclear fuel on the fire of an India-Pakistan nuclear arms race." Pakistan is India's nuclear-armed archrival and neighbor; Islamabad has not been offered a similar deal by the United States.

Benefits of the deal
Supporters say the deal provides crucial energy to a friendly country that has a strong nonproliferation record, and it allows U.S. companies to crack a lucrative market.

Critics say it ruins the global nonproliferation treaty and could start a nuclear arms race between India and its rival and neighbor Pakistan.

Speaking Monday night in New Delhi, Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said: "Our nuclear doctrine affirms that India will not resort to (a) first strike and never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. India's nuclear doctrine has a purely defensive orientation."

While the accord has broad support from members of both political parties, lawmakers will soon leave for their summer recess. They return to a crowded legislative agenda and to November elections. The full Senate also must vote on the initiative.

In addition, the deal would have to clear the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material.

Missing information
Several lawmakers sent a letter Monday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice questioning why the State Department had not yet submitted a required semiannual report detailing the activities of foreigners deemed to have dealt with Iran or Syria in nuclear trade.

The lawmakers suggested the department was stalling the report until the India deal had cleared Congress. Past reports, they noted, have accused India of proliferation.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said in a statement that it was "staggering that the State Department could be failing to provide Congress with information about illicit transfers of nuclear and chemical weapons-related technology and goods from entities located in the state of India."

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Monday that he believed the report would be released shortly. He said "there are no political considerations that are delaying its release" to Congress.

Atomic bomb concerns
Critics also sought to link the Indian deal to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security that said Islamabad was building a nuclear reactor able to fuel up to 50 atomic bombs a year.

"If either India or Pakistan starts increasing its nuclear arsenal, the other side will respond in kind," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. "The Bush administration's proposed nuclear deal with India is making that much more likely."

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