- 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.

“It was already a heavy lift for the administration in this Congress, and now the ratification is taking on even more water,” said Brian Darling, director of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Obama last week told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that quick ratification of the treaty was a “top priority,” and administration officials have said approval is key to their hopes to “reset” troubled relations with Moscow.

Mr. Kyl praised what he called “good-faith” efforts by the White House to address his concerns, including a promise over the weekend to add $4 billion in funding for nuclear-weapons modernization.

Congressional aides said that, in addition to the nuclear-modernization issue, Mr. Kyl remains concerned about the New START constraints on U.S. missile defenses and new conventionally armed long-range missiles called “prompt global strike.”

“If the administration thinks they can push the treaty through without Kyl, good luck,” one congressional aide said.

If the treaty is voted down, it would be a setback to the administration’s national security agenda comparable to the Senate’s 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the aide said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a strong supporter of New START, but it was Mr. Kyl whom most Republicans acknowledged as the key vote. Sen. John McCain, Mr. Kyl’s fellow Arizona Republican, said Monday that the GOP caucus was looking to Mr. Kyl for guidance on whether a deal could be cut in the lame-duck session.

GOP lawmakers have pressed the Obama administration to agree to a modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and the administration has pledged to spend $80 billion over 10 years on modernization.

Mr. Kyl’s claim that he was still negotiating in “good faith” on the pact drew scorn from pro-treaty advocates, who said Tuesday that the road to ratification had just become much harder.

“This is Sen. Kyl saying, ‘No,’ ” said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association. “There is enough time to do this if the Republicans want, and it’s the height of irresponsibility for them to delay.”

But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, held out hope Tuesday a deal could still be struck, saying he took Mr. Kyl at his word. Mr. Kerry said the treaty was being considered in the lame-duck session because GOP lawmakers asked him to put off a floor debate before the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

“We are where we are because it was the Republicans who said they needed more time,” Mr. Kerry said. He declined to speculate on whether ratification would be more difficult next year with an expanded Republican minority.

Mr. Biden was scheduled to meet with top senators of both parties this week to discuss a New START vote.

c Eli Lake and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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