Today the Senate finally votes on whether to continue to send nuclear fuel to India despite that country's refusal to forswear future nuclear explosions or to accept international safeguards and inspection of its nuclear facilities. Only the administration has so far concluded that U.S interests are best served by making this fuel sale anyway. The generally divided Nuclear Regulatory Commission reached a 5-0 judgment against the sale. The foreign relations committees of both houses of Congress also opposed it. The full House voted down the sale by a margin of 3 to 1. But since the sale can only be over-ridden by a vote of both houses, the final decision is up to the Senate.

The administration's support for this sale is surprising to say the least. This, after all, is the president who made non-proliferation one of his chief international priorities and who has been willing to spend considerable time, effort and diplomatic capital in pursuit of that goal. The requirement for safeguards as a condition of U.S. nuclear supply was not forced on an unwilling administration by Congress: it was the administration's own proposal and has been a central pillar of its policy.

What is even more puzzling is the importance the administration has attached to winning on this issue. Slightly dazed Senate sources report that that body has seen nothing to match the intensity of the lobbying campaign since SALT II and the Panama Canal treaty. But the nagging question is why? Why should this administration go out of its way to choose this, of all issues, on which to stake its prestige?

The question the Senate will finally have to answer is how much credibility the United States will have left to pursue its non-proliferation goals if it continues nuclear shipments to a country that does not meet its own requirements. How much chance will remain of convincing other potential proliferators to accept these same requirements? How much credibility will the United States have with other nuclear suppliers whom it has been trying so hard to persuade to adopt equally strict conditions? How much standing will be left to persuade France not to export weapons-usable uranium to Iraq, or Switzerland to stop aiding Pakistan's covert weapons project?

India and Pakistan provide the perfect illustration of how quickly one nation's nuclear program can ignite a similar effort next door. Non-proliferation policies cannot stop this spread altogether or for all time, but care and concern and a united policy by all the nuclear suppliers can limit the spread and slow it down. That was the point of the president's non-proliferation policies four years ago. It is as valid today. The Senate should remind him of it this morning.