Key Senate Republicans on Sunday announced that they do not support ratification of a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty, upsetting White House plans to win passage of the pact during the lame-duck session of the Senate.
Despite these statements, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senate Democratic leaders said they have the 67 votes needed to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid set the key test, ending debate and proceeding to a vote, for Tuesday.
On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said they will not be voting to approve the U.S.-Russia arms treaty in the final days of the 111th Congress.
Both lawmakers had said before that they were open to supporting treaty ratification.
“I’ve decided that I cannot support the treaty,” Mr. McConnell said Sunday on CNN. “I think the verification provisions are inadequate, and I do worry about the missile defense implications of it.”
Until this weekend, Mr. McConnell had said his vote would be influenced in part by that of Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, who supports the treaty.
The Republicans made their statements after the defeat Saturday of a treaty amendment offered by Mr. Graham’s close ally Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. The McCain amendment - which would have stricken language from the treaty’s preamble linking defensive and offensive missile systems - failed by a vote of 59-37.
Republicans also failed Sunday to attach an amendment that sought to link strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in the treaty’s preamble. Strategic weapons are those that can hit the United States from Russia; tactical nuclear weapons are considered battlefield weapons.
Democrats argue that any change to the preamble, no matter how small, will reopen negotiations with Russia and effectively kill the treaty.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If we don’t pass the START treaty, if we can’t reach a bilateral agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons, there will be no discussion about tactical weapons. That’s as plain as day.”
Republicans have complained that New START does not limit tactical nuclear weapons that when counted with the Russian strategic arsenal gives Moscow many more nuclear weapons than the United States.
President Obama has made New START, which would require Russia and the United States to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads for each side, a top priority in the lame-duck session.
On Saturday, Mr. Obama sent a letter to Senate leaders stating that the treaty’s preamble and provisions do not limit U.S. plans to build missile-defense systems.
Republicans have argued that Russian statements threatening to withdraw from the treaty if the United States expands current missile defenses will be used by the Obama administration to scuttle missile-defense plans.
The White House has rallied support for New START from former Republican secretaries of state and secretaries of defense. Mr. Obama has said the treaty is the centerpiece of his diplomatic reset with Russia.
Despite the full-court press, many Republicans remain unconvinced. On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Mr. Graham said: “If you want to have a chance of passing START, you’d better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned.”
Mr. Graham was referring to the approval of a stand-alone bill to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned openly gay service members.
Mr. Graham’s opposition to the treaty is significant because he was among the senators who voted to take up ratification during the lame-duck session, breaking with more conservative Republicans and suggesting he could be persuaded to vote for ratification.
Democrats on Sunday were nonetheless optimistic. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Senate Democrats have enough votes during the lame-duck session to ratify New START.
“I think we do” have the 67 votes, or two-thirds majority, Mr. Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re moving forward.”
Mr. Biden later backed that claim on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” stating, “I believe we do” have the votes for approval.
The Senate debated the treaty in between other business on Saturday and Sunday.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, had offered Mr. Reid a deal this month that called for the Senate to take up debate on New START in late January and to hold a vote on treaty ratification Feb. 5. Mr. McCain disclosed the outlines of the deal on Friday in a floor speech.
Congress has passed major legislation during the lame-duck session, including an extension of tax cuts for all Americans and allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
However, Republicans say they don’t have enough time before Congress adjourns for Christmas to debate or propose amendments to the New START agreement, which treaty proponents say is needed for monitoring Russia’s nuclear forces.
In this Congress, Democrats need nine Republican votes to get the 67-vote two-thirds majority needed to ratify New START. In the next session, Democrats would need 14 Republicans to ratify the treaty.
Mr. Kyl, who said Sunday that he now opposes the treaty, said Mr. Obama’s letter on missile defenses has assured lawmakers of the U.S. commitment to building long-range missile defenses in Europe. However, he said that promise should be in the treaty.
“Tell that to the Russians,” he said. “This treaty needs to be fixed.”
A key swing vote in the debate is Mr. McCain. The senator has not said whether he will support or oppose New START. He has focused on his concerns that the Russians will use the treaty to pressure the United States to limit missile-defense plans.
Mr. Kyl summed up the Republican opposition to New START on Sunday when he said, “I don’t know whether it was because of a lack of direction from the commander in chief or poor negotiation, but one way or another we got snookered.”
“We got snookered on missile defense,” he added, “We got snookered on tactical nuclear weapons. We got snookered on verification.”
c Joseph Weber contributed to this report.