Congress approved legislation Saturday allowing U.S. shipments of civilian nuclear fuel to India, handing President Bush a victory on a top initiative and setting up a major shift in U.S. policy. Critics said the measure could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by boosting India's atomic arsenal.
Following overwhelming endorsement Friday in the House, the Senate cleared the bill early Saturday for Bush to sign into law.
It reverses three decades of American antiproliferation policy and, supporters say, deepens ties with a democratic Asian power that has long maintained what the Bush administration considers a responsible nuclear program.
Before civil nuclear trade can begin, however, several hurdles remain, including another congressional vote once ongoing technical negotiations on an overall cooperation agreement are settled between the two governments.
"India is a state that should be at the very center of our foreign policy and our attention," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. The plan, he said, ushers in a new partnership "based on our shared objective of preventing the spread of dangerous nuclear technology to countries and groups that would use it for evil purposes."
Opponents said the plan threatened to ruin global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, and sent a horrible message to other countries that might be looking to build their nuclear arsenals.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said the United States "cannot speak out of one side of its mouth and tell Iran and North Korea 'don't you dare go in that direction' " toward building a nuclear weapons program and "on the other hand give a blessing to that same kind of arrangement" with a friendly India.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pointed to a claim by analysts that the extra fuel the deal would provide could free India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons program, setting off an arms race between India and rival Pakistan. The plan, Markey said, is a "mistake that will come back to haunt the United States and the world."
The legislation carves out an exemption in American law to allow U.S. civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at 14 civilian nuclear plants. Congressional action was needed because U.S. law bars nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full international inspections.