Republican senators take a hard line on new arms treaty with Russia

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; 7:59 PM

Republican senators voiced concerns about the new U.S. arms-control treaty with Russia on Tuesday, asserting that it would limit the development of U.S. missile defenses and fail to reduce Moscow's stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

The administration needs the support of two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which would further reduce the number of U.S. and Russian strategic delivery systems and nuclear warheads.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that the administration's ability to win GOP support for the treaty could depend on verification and enforcement mechanisms in the pact, as well as plans for U.S. warhead modernization. In that vein, he urged "accelerating the timetable for producing the National Intelligence Estimate and a formal verification assessment related to the treaty."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the administration's arguments for the treaty's approval during a two-hour committee hearing. While all the Democrats at the session voiced their support, no Republicans joined in.

Lugar, who has worked on nuclear disarmament issues for 30 years, came the closest to indicating that he would support the treaty, saying: "To deliberately forgo a strategic nuclear arms control regime with Russia would be an extremely precarious strategy."

Perhaps the sharpest exchanges of the hearing focused on whether the treaty will inhibit U.S. missile defense plans. In its preamble, the new treaty "recognizes" a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons; in a statement attached to the treaty, Russia said that it could withdraw from the pact if its missile stockpile, once reduced, could be stopped by U.S. defensive systems.

"We say this doesn't impede our abilities [to build defense systems]; the Russians say, yes, it does," said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho). He added that Clinton and others had noted that the United States had attached its own statement that it, too, could withdraw from the treaty.

"That's not a legitimate answer," Risch said, "because if that's the case, then why have the treaty at all?"

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) took an even harder line, saying that he had read the treaty language to mean that "we can develop defensive missile defense as long as it does not threaten [Russian] offensive capabilities."

Gates stated that under the previous two administrations, "it has been the United States' policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia's nuclear capabilities." To do that, he said, "would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive."

The U.S. missile defense program, Gates added, was "intended to protect against rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran, or countries that have very limited capabilities."

When Clinton pointed out that the language in the preamble is similar to language that had been included in the previous treaty with Russia, DeMint said he would ask to see "the full negotiating record." That request could prompt an issue of executive privilege from the administration, as it has in the past. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee's chairman, instead promised DeMint a closed session with the team that negotiated the new treaty.

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