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Obama Administration Scrambles As Hope Fades For Quick START Vote

  • Richard Solash

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty in April, but a vote on ratification has been delayed in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty in April, but a vote on ratification has been delayed in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. President Barack Obama's hopes of winning quick ratification of a new arms-control treaty with Russia have suffered a major blow, potentially derailing one of his top foreign-policy initiatives.

The lead Republican negotiator on the treaty, Senator Jon Kyl (Arizona), announced on November 16 that he would oppose a vote on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in the U.S. Senate during the short legislative session between now and the end of the year.

The setback has sent the administration scrambling, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledging to "work around the clock" to persuade opponents to change their minds.

In a rare appearance alongside lawmakers on Capitol Hill today, she said the treaty was critical to national security. "For anyone who thinks that we can postpone [ratifying the treaty], or [that] we can avoid it, is, I'm afraid, vastly underestimating the continuing threat that is posed to our country," Clinton said.

Obama had hoped to win Senate approval by the end of the year on the agreement, which he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in April.

Republican Concerns

The treaty commits the United States and Russia to reducing their stockpiles of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 -- a reduction of nearly one-third -- and is accompanied by a verification regime. The Obama administration has hailed the agreement as a key achievement in its foreign-policy agenda and a major milestone in its reset of relations with Moscow.

Kyl, whose support is considered key to getting the Republican votes needed for a two-thirds majority Senate vote for ratification, said he did not think there was enough time to consider the treaty during the so-called "lame duck session," the narrow legislative window during the remainder of 2010.

For the next few weeks, Obama's Democratic Party still holds a large majority in the Senate and need only nine Republican votes for ratification.

The recent midterm elections reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate by six seats, which will make it harder to win approval for START if the vote takes place in January, when newly elected legislators take their seats. Then, 14 Republican votes will be needed.

In explaining his position, Kyl cited "the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization."

Republican Senator Jon Kyl has voiced opposition to a vote on ratifiting the new START treaty during the "lame duck" session of Congress.

Kyl and other Republicans have voiced concerns that the treaty will limit U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system -- which Russia opposes -- and that the required reductions to the country's nuclear stockpile will conflict with the need to modernize defense capabilities.

To assuage those concerns, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to an amendment to the treaty explicitly stating that the United States reserves the option to proceed with a missile-defense system.

The White House has also tried to soothe Republican concerns by committing $80 billion over the next decade to modernize the country's nuclear weapons complex. On November 12, it offered to raise that amount by more than $4 billion.

In its efforts to win Kyl's support, "The New York Times" reported that White House officials "counted 29 meetings, phone calls, briefings or letters involving Kyl and his staff."

The senator's statement that he would oppose a vote appeared to catch the administration off guard, with Clinton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), and top committee Republican Richard Lugar (Indiana), who supports the treaty, responding at the press conference today.

"Recently, some have suggested we should hit the 'pause button' -- that it is too difficult to do this treaty in a lame duck session," Clinton said. "I strongly disagree. This is exactly what the American people expect us to do, to come together and do what is necessary to protect our country. We can and we must go forward now on the new START treaty during the lame duck session."

A new poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found that almost three out of four Americans want the Senate to ratify the treaty.

Clinton also noted that past arms-control agreements between Russia and the United States had been approved by large bipartisan majorities.

Kerry said there was still time to resolve the opposition's concerns about the treaty before the end of the year. "We stand ready to negotiate," he said. "We have two weeks [before] we're going to be out of here [for] the Thanksgiving break. We stand ready to work on any day during that period of time. We have at least two weeks before this might come before the Senate. I refuse to believe that the door shouldn't remain open, that we can't find the good faith to negotiate on behalf of our country, in order to deal with the modernization funding and in order to resolve any outstanding questions."

Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, backs quick ratification of the new START treaty.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs predicted that the Senate would vote on the treaty soon and said, "We'll have the votes to pass it."

Impatience In Moscow

U.S. and Russian officials had originally planned to synchronize their respective timetables for ratification, but the U.S. delay has caused impatience in Moscow.

On November 3, the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee withdrew its recommendation to ratify the treaty.

Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov pointed to Washington in explaining the withdrawal, and said that without quick ratification, "it will be much more difficult for President Obama to conduct his foreign policy, termed a 'reset' as far as relations with Russia go."

The Obama administration has voiced the same fear, and in arguing for ratification has repeatedly referenced recent U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran sanctions, counterterrorism, and counternarcotics -- all of which was forged after the treaty was signed by Obama and Medvedev.

At the most recent meeting between Obama and Medvedev, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Japan last week, a senior U.S. administration official said: "There's a nervousness of course about this dragging on, and the symbolism of it dragging it would be not good for U.S.-Russia relations. That was discussed."

Speaking to Interfax today, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, "We expect that there is enough time for discussing a ratification package for the new START treaty and that voting will take place during the current session [of Congress]."