A major new U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal cleared a key hurdle Tuesday as a Senate panel voted overwhelmingly to approve the agreement.
The deal, a top Bush administration foreign-policy priority, passed on a 19-2 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but even backers expressed doubts about whether there was still time left for Congress to pass the measure before the planned adjournment at the end of the week.
“It’s a very important milestone in the relations between two great democracies,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chaired the afternoon hearing in place of the absent Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. “At least for this committee, it is progress that we have moved this issue off the table.”
But nonproliferation activists were sharply critical of the vote, which clears the way for massive American contracts to India’s civilian nuclear industry even though India has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Critics say the deal will allow India to expand its military nuclear programs and will undermine efforts to get other countries to limit their nuclear ambitions.
The Bush administration, which sees the nuclear deal as the centerpiece of a new strategic alliance with one of the world’s emerging economic and military powers, pushed hard for India to be exempted from supply and cooperation bans called for by the nonproliferation treaty.
In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh braved fierce opposition from the political opposition and from members of his own ruling coalition, who warned the agreement placed too many restrictions on India’s nuclear programs.
“This is no way to change 30 years of international nonproliferation policy,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Armed Control Association, after the committee vote. “This is a shameful way for the committee to perform.”
The brief committee hearing Tuesday included just one amendment. A proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, to toughen restrictions on selling India the technology to reprocess nuclear fuel was defeated on a 15-4 vote.
Mr. Feingold and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, were the only two members to oppose the final bill.
Both Mr. Dodd and Mr. Kimball said the nuclear deal still faced an uncertain fate on the crowded congressional calendar.
Lawmakers must pass a continuing spending resolution to keep the government open when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and Congress is also struggling to approve the massive $700 billion financial-rescue package to address the crisis on Wall Street. The House is preparing its own version of the bill to implement the nuclear accord, and the two chambers must reconcile their differences before a final vote can be cast.
House Foreign Affairs Committee spokeswoman Lynne Weil told the Reuters news agency that the panel’s chairman, Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, supported the India nuclear pact and was discussing ways to expedite a vote on the agreement.
One option would be to include the India pact on the must-pass continuing resolution, but Mr. Kimball said members may object to adding the controversial pact to the spending measure.
Mr. Dodd said he was “confident” that the House and Senate could find the time in the next few days for a final vote on the pact, but noted that, as chairman of the Senate banking committee, he was consumed right now with negotiations on the Wall Street bailout.
President Bush has invited Mr. Singh to the White House on Thursday, and Mr. Dodd held out a slight hope the nuclear agreement could be approved by then.
“What better present could we give to the prime minister than to get this passed?” he said.