Sources: $4 billion bid to save START

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Saturday, November 13, 2010

In a last-minute bid to save a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the Obama administration has offered to spend $4 billion more over five years on the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, congressional sources said Friday.

President Obama has made passage of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, one of his top priorities for the lame-duck session starting next week. Officials worry that the pact could face long delays, or even fail, if it is put off until next year, when the Democrats' Senate majority will shrink.

Republicans have conditioned their support for the treaty on a big budget increase to fix up the country's aging weapons-production facilities.

Administration officials went to Capitol Hill on Friday and said the White House was prepared to add $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities, according to one congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private. That is on top of a $10 billion increase the administration had already promised over the next decade.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that the meeting with his staff "went well" but that he needed to scrutinize the numbers further. He said he was unsure whether there was time in the lame-duck session to pass the treaty.

"I'm open - there's just a lot to accomplish. . . . People [in the Senate] haven't had time to digest the details of what's happened" with the budget proposal, he said.

Under the treaty, the United States and Russia would cut the number of long-range deployed nuclear weapons by up to 30 percent. More important, perhaps, it would reinstate a system under which each country could check on each other's stockpiles.

That verification system lapsed when the first START treaty expired in December, and military officials are anxious to resume inspections.

The White House declined to confirm the added $4 billion offer. But a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that Vice President Biden had promised senators that the administration would revise its spending plan after they complained the first increase was insufficient.

Asked why it took so long to provide the new figures, the official said: "We are expediting a budget process that usually takes until Feb. 1."

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