updated 11/16/2006 8:54:14 PM ET 2006-11-17T01:54:14

The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly endorsed a plan allowing the United States to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India, handing President Bush an important victory on one of his top foreign policy initiatives.

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Senior lawmakers from both political parties championed the proposal, which reverses decades of U.S. anti-proliferation policy, saying it strengthens a key relationship with a friendly Asian power that has long maintained what the United States considers a responsible nuclear program. Thursday's vote was 85-12.

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar called the plan "a lasting incentive" for India to shun future nuclear weapons tests and "to cooperate closely with the United States in stopping proliferation." Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden said the endorsement pushes America "a giant step closer" to a "major shift in U.S.-Indian relations."

"If we are right, this shift will increase the prospect for stability and progress in South Asia and in the world at large," Biden said.

More hurdles to clear
Even with the strong approval by the Senate, however, several hurdles loom before India and the United States 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 Sen. 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 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 Sen. 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.

Rep. 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."

Military plants off-limits
The bill carves out an exemption in American law to allow U.S. civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at its 14 civilian nuclear plants; eight military plants would be off-limits.

Congressional action is necessary because U.S. law bars nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full international inspections. 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.

There are other necessary steps before U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation could begin. An exception for India must be made by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material. Indian officials also must negotiate a safeguard agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

And once technical negotiations on an overall cooperation agreement are settled between India and the United States, Congress would then hold another vote on the overall deal.

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