WASHINGTON — A proposed nuclear deal with India that the White House considers one of the most important pillars of President Bush's foreign policy legacy is in jeopardy because of growing objections in Congress and abroad.
Administration officials say quick congressional action is needed for survival of the complicated deal, which would permit civilian nuclear cooperation as a way to forge a historic alliance between the United States and a rising power in Asia. But lawmakers fear the accord would unravel international agreements designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and encourage the nuclear ambitions of countries such as Iran.
Despite pressure from senior administration officials and personal lobbying by Bush, key Republicans remain on the fence. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has been largely silent on the proposed legislation, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, is uncommitted.
The White House faces months of delay, if not outright defeat.
The Senate is unlikely to consider pending legislation crucial to the deal until after November's midterm elections, aides said. In the House, where opposition is stronger, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), ranking minority member on Hyde's committee, supports the accord, but he recently warned that the administration's bill did "not have the wide and bipartisan backing it needs to pass."
Opposition has also grown among some Indians, who fear the deal would compromise their nation's independence, and among the 45 members of an organization of countries that control the global nuclear trade. The White House wants the group to bless the deal before it proceeds.
Last week, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran acknowledged after talks with U.S. officials in London that the two countries might have to consider a future without the deal. Though the accord's failure would be "a setback in the strategic relationship," he asserted that U.S.-Indian ties would grow anyway because of other shared interests.
The accord would overhaul U.S. nuclear policy on India, which for three decades has been aimed at punishing the country for developing its own nuclear arsenal in defiance of international norms. The legislation before Congress would provide an exception for India in a law that bars the United States from providing atomic technology to countries that have not signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Afterward, Congress would be asked to approve a treaty formalizing the new relationship. American and Indian negotiators have only begun to discuss the terms of the pact, which are expected to include sales of U.S. technology and know-how.
In return for U.S. help, India would agree to allow United Nations inspections of its civilian reactors. Its military nuclear facilities would remain secret.
Bush administration officials contend that U.S. help in developing India's civilian nuclear program will ease world competition for oil, help the environment and create a valuable market for U.S. business. They want to build ties to democratic India in part to offset the growing influence of China.
Lawmakers focused on a better U.S.-India relationship tend to favor the accord. But those concerned about nuclear proliferation think the U.S. is giving away too much. They fear the deal would encourage China, for example, to cooperate more closely with Pakistan and Russia to expand its aid to Iran's nuclear program.
"The majority of us in Congress thinks that a U.S.-India strategic relationship makes sense," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village). "But you also have this deal undermining our nonproliferation policies ... and it sort of insults Congress as an institution by asking us to change our laws [on nuclear sales] to allow a nuclear treaty that hasn't been negotiated yet."
Administration and Indian officials have warned that if Congress changes key elements of the pact, India will reject it. They have pointed out to lawmakers that the coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a weak hold on power, and that Indian nationalists, communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal opposition group, oppose the accord.
Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, said in an interview that the administration had told Congress that it was "flexible" on how to handle approval, as well as on specifics of the legislation.
"But there are also elements that we just can't change because that would break the agreement we have with the Indians," Boucher said.
He said the administration was hopeful that "people in Congress who want to move it forward can do so quickly." But he added that "it's hard for us to predict congressional schedules."