Clinton Seeks to Save Arms Treaty as Republicans Balk

Senator Jon Kyl
Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration is nearing a consensus with congressional leaders on funding for improvements to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a sticking point in efforts to win Senate ratification this year for an arms control treaty with Russia.

Speaking after meeting with lawmakers, Clinton said the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is ready for consideration by the Senate and should be ratified.

“We’ve had very encouraging discussions” with “a number of Republican senators who share our commitment to ensuring a robust, nuclear modernization program,” Clinton said. “There well may be a bipartisan consensus emerging on the need for such funding.”

President Barack Obama’s push for a vote on the START agreement suffered a setback yesterday when Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican and one of his party’s leading voices on nuclear-weapons policy, said the issues are too complex to resolve by year’s end.

Postponing consideration of the treaty into 2011, when the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinks, would make it more difficult to win approval of an agreement Obama calls one of his top foreign-policy priorities.

“This is going to be a test of the degree to which both sides can work together on things that are of common interest,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. “I think the treaty will come up, I think the treaty will be voted on, and I think we’ll have enough votes to pass it.”

‘No Substantive Disagreement’

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said spending to modernize U.S. nuclear forces is the only remaining area of disagreement with Republicans.

Clinton said the lapse of the previous treaty leaves the U.S. without inspectors on the ground in Russia to monitor that country’s nuclear arsenal.

“We need to get our inspectors back into Russia after a gap of nearly a year,” Clinton said. “As our intelligence and defense colleagues have repeatedly noted, we are much better off with the new START than without it.”

Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said that failure to ratify the treaty was “inexcusable” and that the nuclear stockpiles of nations such as Russia, Iran and North Korea pose “an existential problem for our country.”

Kyl has said Obama’s 10-year plan to spend $80 billion on modernizing the U.S. nuclear-arms arsenal isn’t sufficient.

Military Backing

Obama’s top military adviser, Admiral Michael Mullen, said he is “very comfortable” with the treaty’s impact on U.S. military capabilities and its verification procedures.

“It’s critical that we move forward as rapidly as we can,” Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon today.

Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday that the administration, after talks with Kyl, has offered to spend an additional $4.1 billion over the next five years to improve the U.S. arsenal and nuclear laboratories.

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said newly elected lawmakers who take office in January deserve a chance to be heard on the treaty.

“It shouldn’t be rushed through in the lame-duck session,” Cornyn said in an interview.

Under the current Senate lineup, the administration would need support from at least eight Republicans to reach the required two-thirds majority to ratify a treaty in the 100- member Senate. Starting in January, Obama would have to line up at least 14 Republican votes.

Russian Ratification

Russia’s State Duma is prepared to ratify the treaty, said Andrei Klimov, a deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the lower house of parliament.

“But this must be done in concert with the Americans,” Klimov said by telephone. “We’ve made our decision, but haven’t formalized it. The ball’s in the Americans’ court, so let them knock it back and forth a bit.”

Treaty opponents include John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Republican President George W. Bush, who says the treaty confers more benefits on Russia than on the U.S.

Because budget constraints will force reductions in Russia’s nuclear arsenal regardless of whether the treaty takes effect, Bolton and other opponents say U.S. ratification of the accord will unnecessarily preserve nuclear parity between the two powers.

Resume Verification

Treaty supporters, including Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Republican, say the accord will allow the two sides to resume verification of each other’s arsenals, a process halted when the previous treaty expired almost a year ago.

The monitoring, including site visits, is intended to give both countries confidence that the other side isn’t secretly trying to acquire a crushing nuclear superiority.

The new START agreement limits 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.

Kyl and other Republicans have said that the treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would hamper U.S. missile defenses.

Deny Obama Victory

“Some Republican senators just want to deny the president a victory, while some are trying to get the best possible deal,” said Robert Kagan, a national security expert at Brookings Institution in Washington and a former foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. “Still, blocking the treaty is a mistake.”

Obama told Medvedev on Nov. 14 in Tokyo that getting Congress to ratify the treaty this year is a “top priority.”

Support from Kyl is “gettable” if Clinton and the administration are willing to amend the treaty and more clearly lay out modernization components, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in an interview.

Lugar, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Johnny Isakson of Georgia joined 11 Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee in September on a 14-4 vote to send the treaty to the full Senate for consideration.

Corker said the administration has made an effort and needs to have patience and make changes Republicans are seeking.

“We want to make sure there’s a modernization process in place so they actually work,” he said of weapons remaining in the nuclear stockpile after the treaty is ratified.

“In the past, there’s been huge support for treaties like these,” Corker said in an interview. “I really do believe this can be passed” after a new Congress convenes in January.

The last three arms-reduction treaties passed the Senate with more than 90 votes.

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