United Nations: India and the Bush administration has won the backing of a key US Senate panel to resume trade in nuclear fuel and technology between the two countries after more than three decades.

Decisive visit: Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh arrives at John F Kennedy Airport in New York. The US state department is pressing Congress to ratify the agreement before it adjourns this week. Manvender Vashist / Mint

The Senate foreign relations committee voted 19-2 on Tuesday in favour of legislation to approve the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement. The measure, which had the support of top Democrats and Republicans on the panel, moves to the Senate floor. The House of Representatives also is considering whether to grant its approval.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the panel, said support for the measure was built on “extensive public hearings and a public record that answers hundreds of questions".

“I am confident that we have cooperation from the Bush administration and a strong bipartisan team in Congress to complete action on the bill this year," Lugar said in a statement after the vote. He co-sponsored the legislation with senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is serving temporarily as panel chairman.

The state department is pressing Congress to ratify the agreement before it adjourns this week. The White House signalled confidence in passage last week as it announced a visit on 25 September by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who put his governing coalition on the line for the accord.

US arms control advocates have cautioned that the deal might indirectly aid India’s military nuclear effort and exacerbate the spread of atomic weapons technology. They say the agreement would give India, which never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, a pass on conditions usually applied to signatories such as the US.

“Our concern really is that the deal as a whole significantly undermines US and international non-proliferation efforts," said Leonor Tomero, director for nuclear non-proliferation at the non-profit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

The agreement also might lead to an arms race in South-East Asia because neighbouring Pakistan, which also never signed the non-proliferation treaty, has said it would seek to match India’s capability, Tomero said.

Members of the Senate panel last week said they were concerned that India might try to stockpile fuel that could be diverted to a weapons programme.

They also said India seems to expect the US to encourage other countries to continue supplying India in the event of a violation of the agreement that forces the US to suspend cooperation.

The legislation the committee considered on Tuesday attempts to address those concerns by stating that US policy is to try to prevent such transfers. And the amount of any nuclear fuel reserve provided to India should be on a par with its civilian needs, according to the draft measure.

“Several steps remain before this Bill becomes law," said senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who has temporarily handed the chairmanship of the panel to Dodd while campaigning as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

“I hope Congress can complete the job in the few days remaining before adjournment, and I’ll continue fighting as hard as I can to achieve this important victory," Biden said in a statement after the vote.