- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Senate Republicans expressed new concerns about a strategic arms pact with Russia that could imperil formal ratification as the treaty was voted out of committee on Thursday.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted by 14-4 to approve what is called New START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The Senate could hold a full debate and a vote this year, although senators have said the vote could be delayed until next year.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a classified letter Wednesday evening to the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laying out a series of objections to the treaty.

In a statement Thursday, Mr. Bond said, “In their rush to pass a treaty before Congress can evaluate the intelligence community’s assessment on its impact and the treaty’s lack of verification necessary to detect Russian-cheating, the administration is taking us down a dangerous path.”

Sen. James Risch, Idaho Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, tried to stop the vote on New START on Thursday by saying he had received information from the intelligence community that should force senators to reconsider their votes.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and committee chairman, said he took the matter seriously but urged the senator not to discuss the matter in open session.

The classified concerns of the two Republicans could imperil a final vote, which has been pushed back until after the November midterm elections. Ratification of the treaty has been a high priority for the Obama administration, which has said New START is a centerpiece of its reset with Russia.

President Obama, in a statement Thursday, praised the committee’s passage of START.

“It reduces the deployed nuclear forces of both the United States and Russia, provides strong verification measures, and continues to improve relations between our two nations the world’s two largest nuclear weapon powers, and key partners in global security,” he said. “Indeed, ratification of this Treaty will reinforce our cooperation with Russia on a range of issues, including one of our highest priorities preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The treaty, signed in April, calls for Russia and the United States to reduce their stockpiles of deployable nuclear warheads to 1,550.

Republican critics of the treaty have raised concerns that it could limit U.S. missile defenses.

“Under this treaty, the U.S. allows limits on missile defense and conventional prompt global strike, while accepting weakened verification measures. It is unclear what concessions were made by Russia,” Mr. Risch said.

In a commentary published Thursday in Politico, Ellen Taucher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller stated that passage of the arms control treaty is crucial to enhancing the U.S. understanding of the Russian arsenal.

“Without New START, our knowledge of Russia’s nuclear forces is likely to erode and the risks of misunderstandings and miscalculations will grow. Worst-case assumptions are then likely to fuel military planning in both countries, increasing costs and decreasing trust,” the two wrote.

Republicans have conditioned their support for treaty ratification on two issues. First, Republicans have sought language in the ratification resolution clarifying that a bilateral committee set up under New START cannot discuss U.S. missile defenses except for the single issue covered in the treaty. The treaty prohibits using any more offensive missile silos for new defensive anti-missile interceptors.

Also, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and other senators have conditioned support for the treaty on the administration’s commitment to following through with spending and programs to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 10 years.

Mr. Obama has pledged to boost spending on this project by $10 billion over 10 years. The total for nuclear infrastructure upgrading will reach $80 billion.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has said Republicans will follow the lead of Mr. Kyl and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The committee passed by voice vote on Thursday a ratification resolution addressing these Republican concerns. The resolution, drafted by Mr. Lugar, contains a provision requiring reports from the Obama administration on the progress of the nuclear arsenal modernization, with language noting that the United States should withdraw from the treaty if the failure to upgrade the nuclear weapons system endangers U.S. security.

One Senate staff member who follows the issues, however, said Mr. Lugar’s resolution was not likely enough to persuade many Republican members to vote for the treaty. “Look at the vote in the committee,” this source said. “You had four votes against already.”

Passage of a treaty requires 67 votes in the Senate. Most arms control treaties have passed with no members voting in opposition.

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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