Vote on New START nuclear arms treaty delayed in Senate

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Obama administration's hopes for rapid, bipartisan approval of its new arms-control treaty with Russia have dimmed, with Republican senators making clear that they will not support ratification without iron-clad assurances of future spending to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, announced Tuesday that he will delay a key vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until after the summer recess. That will pitch the treaty into the politically charged period just before the November elections.

The administration remains optimistic that the accord can be approved this year, and Kerry said the delay would help rather than harm the effort. But the debate has illustrated the partisan distrust in the Senate, where Republicans have taken the unusual step of seeking to examine the classified negotiating record to truth-squad the administration's assertions.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, said recently that the political battle was the most bitter he had seen over a nuclear treaty.

"It doesn't move the ball very much," Scowcroft said of the pact, which he supports. "But there's an atmosphere of great hostility."

Many U.S. allies had assumed New START would easily be ratified this year. The treaty commits the United States and Russia to modest cuts in their long-range, ready-to-use weapons and extends a 15-year system allowing each side to check the other's nuclear facilities. It is the cornerstone of the Obama administration's attempt to "reset" relations with Moscow.

The treaty has been endorsed by six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces. French Ambassador Pierre Vimont said recently that after diplomats cabled home that the treaty could run into problems, "People ask us, 'Have you been drinking?' "

Republicans' demands

Republicans have submitted more than 700 questions about the pact since it was introduced in May. They are insisting on more guarantees for a 10-year budget increase to fix up the aging nuclear weapons complex.

"The sooner our requests are satisfied, the sooner we'll be in a position to act on the treaty," said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the leading Republican voice on the pact.

The Obama administration wants to ratify the treaty this year, while the Democratic caucus has 59 votes. At least eight Republican votes will be needed for the two-thirds threshold for ratification. The administration hopes for more votes than that, to give momentum to its future arms-control efforts.

So far, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) appears to be the only solid Republican "yes" vote. That gives the GOP considerable leverage.

Obama has pledged to spend $80 billion over a decade to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, roughly a $10 billion increase in funding. In addition, the plan envisions spending $100 billion on strategic bombers and long-range missiles that carry nuclear warheads.

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