- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2010

President Obama’s bid to win ratification of a new strategic arms pact with Russia suffered a major blow on Tuesday when a key Republican senator came out against holding a vote before the Senate adjourns at the end of the year.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, considered the GOP point man in the debate, said he was deeply skeptical that there was enough time left in the lame-duck session of Congress to take up the complex New START, despite heavy lobbying from the White House and Senate Democrats to proceed.

Most observers expect treaty ratification to be more difficult next year, when Republicans will hold six more Senate seats.

“I really do appreciate the sort of last-minute efforts of the administration to brief us on what their thinking is, but we don’t even have a plan in writing yet - so it would be a little bit premature to bring it up,” said Mr. Kyl, who also serves as Senate minority whip.

He noted that Congress still must deal with a host of thorny tax and spending issues, leaving little time for a floor debate on the missile deal. Mr. Kyl has led a Republican push to get more money to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and preserve the right to pursue missile-defense systems as a price for approving the treaty.

At the White House, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said the failure to approve the treaty this year will “endanger our national security” and lead to less cooperation with Moscow. Without ratification, he said, U.S. inspectors will be unable to monitor and verify Russian nuclear-weapons activities.

“The New START treaty is a fundamental part of our relationship with Russia, which has been critical to our ability to supply our troops in Afghanistan and to impose and enforce strong sanctions on the Iranian government,” Mr. Biden said.

But a leading Russian opposition figure, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, said the nuclear reductions deal - once seen as central to the bilateral relationship - was losing its importance on the Russian side as well.

“I don’t think the START treaty is very important,” said Mr. Nemtsov, a leading voice in the country’s democratic opposition to the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. “The START treaty was important in the Cold War when there were two superpowers that controlled and ran the world.”

With the Russian economy a fraction of the size of the U.S. economy and still struggling to grow, “there is no opportunity to support so many nuclear missiles, [and] that is why reduction happens, regardless of the will of Putin.”

Under New START, Moscow and Washington would each cut their deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads and active nuclear delivery vehicles to 700, with an additional 100 platforms held in reserve.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates penned an opinion column in The Washington Post on Monday urging a quick vote, arguing that the treaty would not constrain U.S. missile-defense programs, which Moscow staunchly opposed in the past. They noted that the previous START missile-reduction treaty had expired and that U.S. inspectors are blocked from visiting Russian missile sites to verify adherence to the pact.

New START critics, including former CIA Director James Woolsey and John R. Bolton, former undersecretary of state for arms control, contend that the new treaty will restrict future missile defenses and the prompt global strike systems by allowing Russian debate on weapons in a treaty-monitoring forum.

The treaty mentions missile defense and conventional-strike missiles in its preamble, but the only treaty limits are a ban on using offensive ICBM silos for missile-defense interceptors, and a requirement that conventional-warhead Trident submarine-launched missiles be counted as part of the 1,550 weapons that the United States and Russia would have under the New START.

The failure to obtain a vote in the current Senate could prove a major headache for Mr. Obama, as midterm losses mean that the Democratic caucus in the incoming Senate will shrink from 59 votes to 53, and a bumper crop of 13 new GOP freshman senators, many conservative, will be taking office. The treaty needs a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, for ratification.

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