Key Senate conservatives are holding off support for the new arms treaty signed by President Obama and his Russian counterpart on Thursday and are seeking promises that the agreement will not limit missile defenses, arms verification and nuclear modernization efforts.
"Republicans have made clear for months what needs to be done in order to move this process; there's been no ambiguity in our position on a strong missile defense, nuclear triad and the need to verify any treaty," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republicans, said they are concerned about additional references beyond the opening paragraphs of the treaty on missile defenses.
"While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions," they said in a statement.
Russian statements outside the treaty that Moscow will pull out if missile defenses threaten Russian forces, also "has the potential to constrain improvements to U.S. missile defenses, if objected to by the Russians," the senators said.
Additionally, the senators said the treaty will be difficult to ratify without fully funding a nuclear modernization program.
Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) during a ceremony in the Czech Republic capital. If ratified, the treaty will reduce strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a level of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads that was negotiated under the last arms treaty signed in 2002.
Nuclear missiles and bombers will be cut to between 700 and 800 systems.
Mr. Obama said in Prague, "I feel confident that we are going to be able to get it ratified."
The White House needs 67 votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed for the ratification of treaties, which gives Republicans some leverage to negotiate for a plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The nuclear triad refers to nuclear submarines, nuclear bombers and nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. The nuclear proliferation review released by the Obama administration this week endorses keeping that triad but opposes the replacement of nuclear warheads, an issue Republicans in the past have supported.
The U.S. nuclear triad currently is made up of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines each equipped with 24 Trident II missiles. The current ICBM force has 450 Minuteman IIIs with one to three warheads each. Additionally, 76 B-52s and 18 B-2s are part of the nuclear force.
Current Russian nuclear forces include 367 land-based missiles, 13 missile submarines with 165 multiple-warhead missiles, and 76 bombers that can fire up to 844 long-range cruise missiles.
Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy and also a key negotiator of the last U.S. arms control treaty with Russia, said the START treaty is not objectionable but was not needed.
"There is no problem with a new START treaty in principle," he said. "There is no problem with modest reductions in principle. And also we don't need the treaty, we are willing to do these things unilaterally and the Russians will probably do it unilaterally themselves."
However, Mr. Feith added, "since the administration is so eager for it, the main interests of conservatives will relate to modernization. Republicans are interested in the U.S. nuclear posture, the political leverage they have will be the treaty."
On Dec. 15, 41 senators, all Republicans and one independent, sent Mr. Obama a letter saying their support for a START treaty was linked to the administration's full funding and plan for modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.
While the Obama administration's nuclear posture review, made public on Tuesday, endorses the maintenance of existing warheads, it states that there will be no new warheads, only upgrades of existing weapons, some of which are more than 50 years old.
"One of the hot issues is going to be the replacement warhead. We don't have the ability to manufacture a new warhead," said Mr. Feith, who has advised Republican senators on the new treaty.
A letter sent last month from Mr. Kyl and Mr. McConnell said, "The success of your administration in ensuring the modernization plan is fully funded in the authorization and appropriations process could have a significant impact on the Senate as it considers the START follow-on treaty."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said he will condition his vote for START ratification on the administration's nuclear modernization efforts as well.
"My vote on the START treaty will thus depend in large measure on whether I am convinced the administration has put forward an appropriate and adequately funded plan to sustain and modernize the smaller nuclear stockpile it envisions," he said.
Republicans also plan to seek assurances from the administration that the new treaty does not constrain the country's missile-defense systems.
The U.S. and Russia have offered differing views on links between START and missile defenses.
The treaty preamble states that current missile defenses "do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the parties."
In Prague, Mr. Obama said in a statement, that "I've repeatedly said that we will not do anything that endangers or limits my ability as commander in chief to protect the American people."
"And we think that missile defense can be an important component of that," he said.
Mr. Medvedev said the preamble language is viewed by Russia as meaning that "to a certain extent, [it] replicates a legal principle of the unchangeability of circumstances that were basis for the treaty."
Mr. Obama is expected to ask for the ratification process to start as soon as next month.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that START hearings will begin in several weeks.
"The White House has indicated that the full treaty will be completed and submitted to the Senate in early May," Mr. Kerry said. "I plan to begin hearings on the treaty in the coming weeks, and then report a proposed resolution of advice and consent to ratification out of the Foreign Relations Committee for approval by the full Senate as soon as possible."