Under heavy pressure from President Carter, the Senate cleared the way yesterday for the United States to sell uranium to India despite that country's refusal to abide by international nuclear controls.
The vote was 48 to 46, a thin but critical victory for the administration in what had emerged as a major pre-election test of foreign policy for the president on Capitol Hill.
The House voted by a 3-to-1 ratio last week to overturn Carter's authorization of the sale.But concurrence of both houses was required to block the transaction, so the Senate vote -- which had been expected to be close -- was decisive.
After the House vote, the administration mounted an all-out drive against the disapproval resolution in the Senate, including face-to-face pleadings by Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie and phone calls from Air Force one as Carter campaigned in western states.
The votes in both houses crissicrossed partisan and ideological lines, and the White House hailed the Senate vote yesterday as a "display of bipartisanship" that would help the administration's efforts to convince India ultimately to accept nuclear non-proliferation safeguards.
At issue was the sale of 38 tons of low-enriched uranium for the huge Tarapur Atomic Power Station that helps supply the densely populated industrial region around Bombay.
Overriding a unanimous ruling by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission against issuance of an export license for Tarapur, Carter authorized the sale in June under procedures that give Congress 60 days in which to block such sales by joint action.
Both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended against the sale, setting the stage for a potentially embarrassing rebuff to the administration on an issue -- control of nuclear proliferation -- that Carter has been championing.
The administration's supporters in Congress, led in the Senate by Foreign Relations Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho), argued that blocking the sale might prompt India to ignore all nuclear control and encourage the Soviet Union to supplant the United States as India's primary nuclear fuels supplier.
A go-ahead for the sale would assure that "the U.S. voice in New Delhi will not be drowned out by a strident, anti-American outcry in India which could drive the Indian government even further away from U.S. policies," church argued. Conversely, he added, if the sale was rejected, "there is every possibility that India would turn to the Soviet Union to replace us at Tarapur."
Leading the campaign against the sale, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) pointed to India's use of U.S. nuclear resources to explode a nuclear device in 1974 and its continuing refusal to abide by international rules for nuclear non-proliferation.
The Tarapur issue is the "first landmark test" of Congress' 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, which banned further sales to countries that have not agreed to international safeguards, said Glenn. "If we back down at the first test, especially in the case of India, the country with the worst history of any of our trading partners, what does that do to the credibility of our non-proliferation policy?" he asked.
Glenn and his allies also questioned how much impact the cancellation would have on U.S.- India relations, noting a lack of any apparent benefits since the sale offer was made.
"In the wake of the Carter administration's offer to send India more nuclear fuel," complained Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), "the [Indira] Grandhi government signed a new $1.6 billion arms deal with the Soviet Union, entered into a far-reaching trade pact with Iran designed to circumvent the U.S. embargo, and became the first nonaligned government to recognize the puppet regime of Heng Samrin in Cambodia."
However, administration supporters argued that American credibility would be undermined if the United States did not go through with its 1963 agreement to supply fuel and equipment for the Tarapur plant for 30 years.
India has broken no agreements with the U.S., said Church, but American cancelation of the Tarapur sale would amount to a "material breach" of this agreement. To block the sale "would breach a contract that India has lived up to," argued Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John C. Stennis (D-Miss.).
In what appeared to be one of the strongest arguments against the disapproval resolution, Church said both sides agreed it was a "close question" -- so close, he contended, that disapproval would unnecessarily weaken the president's diplomatic hand. "Isn't the president entitled to the benefit of the doubt?" he asked.
Maryland's senators voted to approve the Tarapur sale, while Virginia's senators oppossed it.