Obama Fights to Keep Minimum Republican Support on Russia Nuclear Treaty

President Barack Obama fought to keep the minimum Republican support needed to approve ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and perhaps round up more, as the Senate prepared for a test vote on the agreement.

At least nine Republicans -- the minimum number needed to achieve the needed two-thirds Senate majority -- have said they will vote to support ratification or are leaning in favor. Arizona Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said passage of an amendment he has co- sponsored “would be helpful” in also getting his support.

Democrats have won enough backing to defeat five other Republican-sponsored amendments, most of which would have required reopening negotiations between the U.S. and Russia -- a prospect Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has ruled out.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he has included in the ratification resolution 13 amendments aimed at satisfying Republicans’ concerns without reopening treaty talks.

“We will reach further,” Kerry told reporters at the Capitol yesterday. “There may be some additional things we can incorporate.”

The Senate is preparing for a test vote today or tomorrow that would limit the remaining debate to 30 hours on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, one of the last major pieces of business before the chamber adjourns.

Top Priority

Obama has made ratification of the treaty his top foreign- policy priority during the post-election lame-duck session. Democrats, who now control 58 votes in the 100-member Senate, will have a narrower majority in the next Congress starting in January.

“The White House believes that before Congress leaves town, that the Senate will ratify the New START treaty,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday in Washington.

Even after some top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, expressed opposition over the weekend, others who had voiced concerns indicated that they are supportive or leaning in favor of ratification.

Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown said he had done his “due diligence” and would be “supporting the START treaty.”

“It is something that is important for our country,” Brown told reporters.

Leaning in Favor

Utah Republican Robert Bennett, who is leaving the Senate, said in an interview, “I am leaning strongly in favor of it.” Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran said he thought he would probably vote to ratify the agreement.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said his position hasn’t changed since he voted in favor of the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I’m in the same place I was the day I passed it out of committee,” Corker told reporters at the Capitol after a classified briefing related to the treaty. “Something could change, but I don’t know what that would be.”

Republican senators who have expressed support or are leaning in favor of ratification include Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has been a vocal advocate for the treaty. Mark Helmke, his spokesman, said Dec. 11 that the agreement has sufficient support to approve ratification.

Even Idaho Republican James Risch, who said he was among the presenters in the classified session yesterday and has concerns over how well the U.S. could verify Russia’s nuclear arsenal under the treaty, declined to say that he would oppose ratification.

‘Serious Reservations’

“I continue to have serious reservations,” said Risch, who failed to win support for an amendment he proposed that would have required renegotiating the treaty.

Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said yesterday that the treaty “fully” addresses the interests of both countries and was negotiated on a basis of “parity.”

“It cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Kerry said the closed session for senators on Capitol Hill was “very instructive” for lawmakers trying to make up their minds.

Making Calls

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been making calls to senators since the weekend to press for ratification, Gibbs said.

He said opposition from McConnell wasn’t a surprise and didn’t alter the administration’s calculations of support.

Gibbs said the concerns of Republicans -- including U.S. missile defense development and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -- had been addressed during 18 committee hearings. The treaty text has been available since it was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said “any objections at this point are more about politics than substance.”

Among the issues raised by treaty opponents, including McConnell, is whether the accord would limit U.S. development of a missile defense. Obama sent a letter to McConnell on Dec. 18 saying that the treaty wouldn’t hinder the U.S. from deploying such a system in Europe.

“We are proceeding apace with a missile defense system in Europe designed to provide full coverage for NATO members on the continent, as well as deployed U.S. forces, against the growing threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles,” Obama wrote.

Military commanders and defense and nuclear officials have testified that the accord doesn’t limit missile-defense options and that it improves the ability to verify Russia’s adherence to agreed-upon weapons thresholds.

Endorsements

The accord has also been endorsed by former Republican President George H.W. Bush as well as current and former U.S. military commanders and Cabinet secretaries, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell.

New START would limit each side’s strategic warheads to no more than 1,550, from 2,200 allowed previously, and sets a maximum of 800 land-, air- and sea-based launchers. The previous treaty expired in December 2009.

The Senate voted 66-32 on Dec. 15 to begin consideration of the agreement, highlighting how narrow a majority Obama and his Democratic Party may have for an accord that requires two-thirds of the senators present and voting -- 67, if all 100 are in the chamber -- for approval.

To contact the reporters on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net. James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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