BY A THREE-TO-ONE margin, the House last week rejected the president's proposal that the United States send another shipment of nuclear fuel to India even though India has refused to accept international safeguards on its nuclear facilities or to renounce further nuclear weapons tests. The vote echoed the earlier judgment of both the House and Senate foreign relations committees and the unanimous decision of the usually divided Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The final fate of the fuel shipment now rests with the Senate, which must also reject the proposal in order to override the president's override of the NRC.

For more than two years, the United States has been trying to negotiate some kind of compromise safeguards agreement with India. It has met with no success and no indication of even the slightest interest on India's part. If anything, the Indian government has underscored the wide gap between the two countries by regularly reasserting its right to perform additional nuclear tests if it chooses.

The two-year grace period provided by the U.S. Nuclear Non-proliferation Act, during which nuclear exports could continue to countries that had not accepted full international safeguards, expired last spring. The hard choice now is whether to stop the fuel shipments as the law requires or to set a precedent by waiving the law on the first test of its central provision, in the hope that the United States will thereby retain "leverage" over future Indian policy.

The vote therefore has a double-barreled significance. A decision to ship the fuel would signal that the United States didn't really mean what it said in the 1978 law and would make it much harder to reach acceptable agreements with the many other potential weapons builders around the world. Moreover, the waiver would be for India -- the country whose 1974 nuclear test was largely responsible for U.S. non-proliferation policy in the first place. The message sent to other nations would be unmistakable: the United States is not only unlikely to react to countries that explode nuclear bombs, but may not even suspend its nuclear assistance.

The administration is pulling out all the stops in its efforts to convince undecided senators. It surprised nearly everyone by circulating a letter claiming that India didn't violate its agreemment with the United States when it used materials supplied by this country to make the bomb exploded in 1974. In response, Sen. John Glenn (who writes about this question on the opposite page today) requested the immediate declassification of a secret aide memoire sent by the U.S. government to India in 1970. The administration released the document, which had made it unmistakably plain to the government of India four years before the nuclear explosion that the United States considered what India was doing to be "tantamount to the development of nuclear weapons" and a "contravention of the terms under which the American [nuclear] materials were made available." So much for the leverage bought by contnuing nuclear supply.

The administration is arguing that since India didn't accept the U.S. position stated in that document, it never violated an agreement. This is pure Alice in Wonderland: to defend its position now, the U.S. government accepts India's rejection of its earlier position.So much for consistency and firmness of purpose.

The decision to halt nuclear fuel shipments to India is unpleasant, but critical. Any otherr choice would make a mockery of a decade of efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and to guarantee that peaceful-purpose nuclear projects can be assisted -- without danger of the materials being diverted to make bombs.