A Senate panel voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to support the nuclear cooperation accord between the United States and India, a major step toward approval of the unprecedented deal.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote was a victory for President Bush. It comes two days after the House International Relations Committee strongly approved a similar measure.

The votes make it likely that the Republican-run Congress will approve the agreement. Also enhancing its prospects is support by committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who called the accord "the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President Bush."

Senate committee approval came on a 16-2 vote. The lone negative votes were cast by Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

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

Critics say the plan could boost India's nuclear arsenal. Supporters say it would provide much-needed energy to a crucial ally that has always managed its nuclear technologies responsibly.

The committee rejected by 13-5 an amendment from Feingold to require Bush to provide assurances that India would not divert nuclear fuel to its atomic weapons program.

On Tuesday, the House committee voted 37-5 for Bush's initiative. The full House and Senate will have to approve an identical measure before it can be sent to the president for his signature.