DESPITE ONE of the most intense bouts of administration lobbying seen in months, both the House and Senate foreign relations committees have dealt the president an embarrassing blow by rejecting his proposal to send more nuclear fuel to India. The issue will soon be settled by floor votes in both houses.

The proposed sales are controversial because India has refused to renounce the use of U.S. exports for future nuclear bombs and to accept international safeguards on all its nuclear facilities -- both are requirements for U.S. nuclear cooperation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. The 1978 law allowed a two-year grace period during which U.S. negotiators proposed numerous possible compromises, but India rejected all of them.

Despite the failure of these diplomatic efforts and that requirements of the law, the Department of State believes the shipments should be made, in order to "help us maintain a dialogue" and to preserve U.S. "leverage" over India. The congressional votes reflected the more realistic view on Capitol Hill that it takes two to have a useful dialogue and that leverage is only leverage if you are eventually willing to use it.

The administration also argued -- generally in private -- that if the United States failed to make these shipments, India would consider itself no longer bound by the existing agreement between the two countries and would seize and then reprocess used U.S.-supplied fuel that is stockpiled there. But opponents of the sale were reluctant to approve the shipments out of fear -- which is what this argument boils down to.

Even if India did not seize the fuel, State argued, failure to approve the shipments would be an "irritant," constantly blocking good American relations with India. But, said three House Committee chairmen, "we reject the notion that harmony must somehow be purchased through embarrassing and inconsistent concessions. Such actions might temporarily please the current Indian government, but would surely not create the kind of respect upon which long-range . . . relationship must rest."

Few contested the view that bowing to Indian intransigence in this instance would seriously damage U.S. hopes of slowing nuclear proliferation elsewhere. Those who favored the sale argued that political considerations -- especially the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the increasingly warm relations between New Delhi and Moscow -- outweighed proliferation concerns. Yet administration spokesmen were unable to make a convincing case that damaging non-proliferation goals in this way would be balanced by commensurate political benefits.

Nuclear cooperation is a two-way street. In two years of persistent negotiations, the United States has tried to find an acceptable way of satisfying both its non-proliferation goals and Indian sensibilities. So far there has not been even a hint of Indian interest. We think Sen. Javits went to the heart of this issue in the closed session just before the committee vote. State Department non-proliferation negotiator Gerard Smith urged the committee to approve the sale because it is important for the United States to be a "reliable supplier" of nuclear items. The senator reportedly replied that in having diverted U.S.-supplied heavy water to explode a nuclear bomb in 1974, and in its subsequent statements, India had not exactly proven itself "a reliable customer."