- Associated Press - Thursday, December 2, 2010

President Obama gained ground in his push for Senate ratification of a stalled nuclear treaty as once-reluctant Republicans signaled a willingness to back the pact with Russia, although action in the lame-duck session of Congress remained deeply uncertain.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber, said Thursday he is “wide open” to supporting the treaty if the administration addresses his concerns about modernization of the remaining U.S. nuclear arsenal. He praised the White House for working with lawmakers.

“They’re making important steps in the right direction,” Mr. Alexander said in an interview with MSNBC. He said the treaty “has important advantages to our country in terms of the data and the verification.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat leading the ratification effort, said in remarks on the Senate floor Thursday that Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and other GOP skeptics are negotiating in “good faith” and expressed his hope for a “positive outcome.”

The administration jump-started the treaty with a series of steps this week, including the circulation of a letter from the heads of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories expressing support for Mr. Obama’s 10-year, $84 billion plan to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

“Do I feel any movement on START? The answer is yes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters.

The laboratory directors of Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos said the administration’s plan “would enable the laboratories to execute our requirements for ensuring a safe, secure, reliable and effective stockpile.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a proponent of the treaty, distributed the letter to more than a dozen Republican lawmakers at a closed meeting late Wednesday. Several Republican senators, including Olympia Snowe of Maine and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, emerged from the session more positive about completing the treaty in the lame-duck session.

“Speaking for myself, I think there is that reflection and recognition that we can get it done this year,” Ms. Snowe said.

The treaty would cut the limits on strategic warheads to 1,550 for the United States and Russia from the current ceiling of 2,200. The pact also would establish new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other’s nuclear arsenals to verify compliance.

Treaty foes say that ratification - which requires a two-thirds majority totaling 67 votes - will be much harder in the next Congress, when Republicans will gain a net six new seats in the Senate. Under the Senate’s current breakdown, at least nine Republican votes will be needed for ratification.

Mr. Kyl and other Republicans have expressed deep reservations about Mr. Obama’s insistence that the treaty must be dealt with amid the pressing business of Congress‘ lame-duck session. Some have raised concerns that the treaty would limit work on a missile defense system, and they have pressed for sufficient funds for modernization of the existing nuclear stockpile.

Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “It’s moving in a very positive way, but there are still some issues to be resolved.”

Backers of the treaty circulated an op-ed from The Washington Post in which five former secretaries of state urged the Senate to ratify.

“We have here an agreement that is clearly in our national interest, and we should consider the ramifications of not ratifying it,” wrote Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker, Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Colin L. Powell.

Countering that argument, former Reagan administration officials Edwin Meese and Richard Perle wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal saying the pact falls short of those negotiated by President Reagan and they doubt he would have supported it.