WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Saturday to approve a landmark pact that would allow the U.S. to provide nuclear materials to India.
The deal still faces obstacles in the Senate, making prospects uncertain for passage before President Bush leaves office in January. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a supporter, promised a Senate vote on the accord in the week ahead, possibly Monday.
Hoping to raise pressure on that chamber, Bush quickly issued a statement praising House passage and prodding the Senate to do the same thing.
"I urge the Senate to quickly take up and pass this important piece of legislation before their October adjournment," the president said. "Signing this bipartisan bill will help strengthen our partnership with India."
The House approved the measure 298-117 without debate in an unusual Saturday session, held as lawmakers try dealing with the financial crisis and wrapping up the year's business.
The accord reverses three decades of U.S. policy by shipping atomic fuel to India in return for international inspections of India's civilian reactors. Military reactors would not be subject to examination.
Supporters say it would bring India's atomic program under closer scrutiny. Critics say it would boost India's nuclear arsenal and spark an arms race in South Asia.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the measure "furthers our countries' strategic relationship while balancing nuclear nonproliferation concerns and India's growing energy needs."
But Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., said in a statement before the vote that the agreement "flies in the face of decades of American leadership to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
The deal enjoys strong support from senior lawmakers in both parties. But it has stalled in the Senate because at least one lawmaker has anonymously blocked it from coming to a vote, according to congressional aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Supporters warn that while Congress argues over the deal, U.S. businesses are losing opportunities as France, Russia and other countries eyed India's multibillion-dollar nuclear market.
Critics say the initiative sends the wrong message to countries like Iran as they pursue atomic programs. India built its bombs outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provides civil nuclear trade in exchange for a pledge from nations not to pursue nuclear weapons.
India has refused to sign nonproliferation agreements and has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974. The agreement with the U.S. has been a top priority for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries that supply nuclear material and technology agreed this month to lift the ban on civilian nuclear trade with India after contentious talks and some concessions to countries fearful it could set a dangerous precedent.
Indian defense and diplomacy experts predicted Saturday that the measure would be approved by the U.S. Congress.
K. Subrahmanyam, a former member of India's National Security Council, said he was confident the Senate would find a way around the stalemate.
"Since both majority and minority leaders favor the bill, I hope they will find means of getting round to such things," Subrahmanyam told The Associated Press.
G. Parthasarthy, a retired Indian diplomat, said, "The bill enjoys bipartisan support, and it is likely to go through."