Vice President Joseph R. Biden will discuss arms control Saturday with Russia's top envoy, a meeting that could shed light on President Obama's unguarded comment last year that he would have more "flexibility" to negotiate with the Russians after his re-election.
Mr. Biden will hold a one-on-one session with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Munich during a four-day European trip with his wife, Jill, that begins Friday. Administration officials confirmed Thursday that the vice president's agenda with Mr. Lavrov includes an exploration of ways to reduce both nations' nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Mr. Obama "believes that there's room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Biden also will meet with Syria's top opposition leader and discuss the Syrian conflict with Mr. Lavrov. Russia plays a key role in efforts to resolve the civil war because of its long-standing ties to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Republicans in Congress are wary of Mr. Obama's plans for arms reduction and missile defense in Europe. Chuck Hagel, the president's nominee for secretary of defense, was questioned by lawmakers at his confirmation hearing Thursday about his support for the Global Zero nuclear-disarmament movement.
Under the auspices of the group, Mr. Hagel co-authored a report last year that advocates sharp reductions in nuclear weapons and a review of U.S. nuclear policy. Mr. Hagel told senators that any arms-control deal with Russia must be "bilateral and verifiable."
During a summit in South Korea last spring, Mr. Obama was caught in a "hot mic" moment as he spoke with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Obama asked the Russian for more time, "particularly with missile defense," until he was in a better political position to negotiate on the issue.
"This is my last election. ... After my election, I have more flexibility," Mr. Obama said, strongly suggesting that he would win a second term.
Mr. Medvedev replied, "I will transmit this information to Vladimir." He was referring to Vladimir Putin, who since has reclaimed Russia's presidency. Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama have had a particularly contentious relationship.
When Mr. Obama's supposedly private comments were publicized in March, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused him of "pulling punches with the American people."
Some Republican lawmakers worry that Mr. Biden and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who will visit Moscow this month, will propose unilateral reductions in America's nuclear arsenal or modify missile defense without seeking congressional approval.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, asked Mr. Hagel at Thursday's confirmation hearing whether he would commit to notifying Congress of any planned changes to nuclear weapons treaties with Russia or alterations to missile-defense systems.
Mr. Sessions accused the Obama administration of keeping lawmakers in the dark.
"It seems like we've not been consulted on the Biden trip and the Donilon trip," Mr. Sessions said. "What's been going on is disturbing to us. The president said, you know, to Mr. Medvedev that we'll have more flexibility after the election. ... He wasn't consulting with the American people, wasn't telling us or the Congress what he planned to do, but he was apparently willing to discuss it with the Russian leaders."
Mr. Sessions also told Mr. Hagel, "The president also has made it clear he believes in zero nuclear weapons. That is his policy for America. I think it's utterly unrealistic. Congress has a responsibility to the American people to ensure the national defense, and we need to know and have you share those negotiations with us."
Mr. Hagel said he was committed to keeping Congress informed.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, wrote a letter to Mr. Biden this week trying to ascertain the administration's plans, as first reported by Foreign Policy magazine.
"Ahead of your unannounced discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this weekend in Munich, and prior to Mr. Donilon's forthcoming February discussions in Moscow, I write seeking your assurance as to President Obama's plans for future potential U.S. arms reductions," Mr. Rogers wrote.
The lawmaker reminded the vice president that, as a senator in 2002, Mr. Biden urged the Bush administration to follow the precedent that "with the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms-control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution."
After a protracted fight in 2010, the Senate ratified the New START, a U.S. pact with Russia to reduce deployed, long-range nuclear warheads by up to 30 percent on each side.
Mr. Biden's trip will begin in Berlin, where he will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will address the Munich Security Conference on Saturday before departing with Mrs. Biden for Paris and London, where the vice president will hold meetings with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
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