An agreement under which the United States would provide assistance to India's civilian nuclear program has been approved by a key congressional committee. The U.S.-India nuclear accord also faces scrutiny in the Senate this week.
Since the agreement was finalized during President Bush's visit to India last March, the White House has pressed lawmakers to take the specific legislative steps necessary to clear the way for approval by Congress.
Under the accord, the United States would reverse longstanding policy restricting nuclear cooperation with India because of its failure to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
India in turn would agree to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and allow inspectors access to its civilian nuclear facilities.
The measure approved by the House International Relations Committee Tuesday took the specific step of exempting the accord from certain requirements in U.S. law under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to allow exports of nuclear materials, equipment and technology.
Democrat and Republican supporters said the accord will mark the beginning of a new phase in relations, will not harm global nonproliferation efforts, and is in U.S. security interests.
Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley.
"This will be a historic day, the day the U.S. and India broke free of the Cold War mindset and embraced each other as true allies," said Mr. Crowley.
For opponents, the fact that the agreement lacks provision to require India to open its military nuclear sites to inspection is a major flaw.
Another was cited by Democratic Congressman Howard Berman, who unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to require President Bush to make a determination that India has stopped producing fissile materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
"Only a halt of fissile material production would make this deal a net plus for nonproliferation," said Mr. Berman.
Congressman Tom Lantos argues any U.S. attempt to force the issue would be rejected outright by New Delhi.
"We are not in a position to make the most fundamental national security choices for the nation of India with its 1.1 billion people," said Mr. Lantos. "They must come to the realization themselves that more nuclear weapons will not yield more security, a lesson we took decades to learn."
The Bush administration worked behind the scenes to ensure that neither House nor Senate versions of the legislation contain language that might scuttle the accord.
The House measure gives President Bush significant powers to assess India's adherence, and contains a clarifications of U.S. policy regarding the Nuclear Suppliers Group, interpretation of the Nonproliferation Treaty and U.S. security goals dealing with South Asia.
That does not allay the concerns of some lawmakers, such as Iowa Republican Jim Leach, who fear the agreement irretrievably harms nonproliferation.
"Anyone that wants to present this as a happy day is making a very serious mistake. This is a dilemma for the international world that we have undercut the most serious arms control treaty perhaps ever negotiated," said Mr. Leach.
Democrat Gary Ackerman has this response to critics who assert the accord sends the wrong message to others, such as Iran and North Korea, as well as to India's nuclear rival Pakistan:
"If you want to be treated like India, be a responsible international actor with regard to weapons of mass destruction technologies," said Mr. Ackerman.
Despite tighter provisions in the House measure, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde cautions the Bush administration not to make assumptions about prospects for final approval:
"I would caution the administration to pay close attention to congressional concerns," said Mr. Hyde.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the U.S.-India nuclear accord on Wednesday.
Congressional consideration comes as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visits Pakistan, where the U.S.-India accord is viewed with suspicion and President Pervez Musharraf has indicated his government wants similar treatment on nuclear cooperation from the Bush administration.