A House panel endorsed a Bush administration plan on Tuesday to share civilian nuclear technology with India, a first step toward approval of the unprecedented deal.

Supporters called it a defining moment in U.S. relations with India, which is emerging as a pivotal Asian ally and economic partner.

A Republican lawmaker, however, said the deal "knifed" the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to limit the spread of nuclear technology, and called it a sad day for efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The 37-5 vote in the House International Relations Committee was for legislation to exempt India from U.S. laws that restrict nuclear trade with countries that have not submitted to full nuclear inspections. India developed its nuclear weapons program outside the treaty, which it has refused to sign.

Under the deal, India would allow international inspections and safeguards to 14 nuclear reactors it has designated as civilian; India's eight military facilities would remain off-limits. In return, the U.S. would agree to ship nuclear technology and fuel to India.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was to consider separate legislation on the deal Thursday.

Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, said passage of the Bush administration plan would open the door to a host of countries to press claims for similar nuclear cooperation, including South Korea, Japan, Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear treaty "has been knifed by an executive action," Leach said. "Anyone who wants to present this as a happy day is making a very serious mistake."

The House measure was based on a bill proposed by the Bush administration. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the committee chairman, said the earlier bill was "profoundly unsatisfactory" because it removed Congress' oversight role.

While the agreement announced March 2 by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh determined a crucial part of the plan -- separating India's civilian and military nuclear facilities -- the two countries still must negotiate conditions, duration and scope of the overall cooperation plan.

Hyde and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the committee's top Democrat and a supporter of the plan, said Tuesday's legislation would strengthen Congress' role by having lawmakers vote only after they had seen a final version of the cooperation plan with India.

"I would caution the administration to pay close attention to congressional concerns," Hyde said.

Critics say the plan could boost India's nuclear arsenal. Extra nuclear fuel that the deal would provide, they say, could free up India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons program -- a violation of the treaty.