Sen. Kyl dampens administration hopes for ratification of arms treaty

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 3:39 PM

A key Republican senator on Tuesday dampened the Obama administration's hopes of passing a nuclear treaty with Russia by year's end, saying the Senate should not consider the pact during the congressional lame-duck session.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), his party's leading voice on the treaty, characterized as positive an administration bid to win his support with a multibillion-dollar increase in the budget for nuclear modernization but added that there are still "unresolved issues" related to the treaty.

President Obama has called ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) his top foreign policy priority during the lame-duck session that began this week. Treaties need 67 votes to pass. In the lame-duck session, the administration would have to win over at least nine Republicans; if the treaty is put off until next year, that number would grow to 14.

Obama administration officials have said they believe they have the votes in the current Senate to pass the treaty. But Kyl's influence on Republicans is so great that the vote could be close.

It was unclear Tuesday whether Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would bring the treaty up for a vote anyway. His spokesman, Jim Manley, had no immediate comment.

Kyl said that Reid had asked whether the treaty could be considered in the lame-duck session.

"I replied I did not think so, given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the administration to address some of the issues that we have raised, and I look forward to continuing to work" with it.

Kyl has pressed the administration to commit to a major modernization of the country's weapons labs in exchange for approval of the pact.

On Friday, the administration sent a delegation that included Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of U.S. nuclear forces, to Arizona to woo Kyl, part of an intensive effort to seek a deal. The high-octane lobbying - and the administration's offer last week to spend an additional $4 billion on the nuclear complex - reflect Obama's conviction that the treaty is crucial to his nuclear agenda and the U.S.-Russia relationship. The effort has taken on even more urgency because Democrats will have fewer seats in the next Senate.

Two other Republican senators who are prominent in foreign affairs had indicated in recent days they could support the treaty - as long as Kyl was satisfied.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday that Kyl was working with the administration on how to modernize the aging labs and to ensure that the ratification resolution clarified that the treaty didn't inhibit U.S. missile defense.

"If those two issues are resolved - and I think they can be resolved - then I think we could move forward with the ratification to the START treaty," McCain said at a conference sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on ABC's "This Week" that if those two issues were addressed, "I would vote for the treaty."

But McCain said it was unclear whether there would be time in the lame-duck session to ratify the treaty.

Kyl is the Republican whip, the party's No. 2 post in the Senate. He is also one of the few people focused on nuclear issues in a Senate where such expertise has dwindled since the Cold War. But he is more conservative than the Senate's other major Republican expert, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), who supports the treaty.

"The sense is, Kyl's just not going to agree to something that isn't going to meet the tests of the right," said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.

Republicans "have kind of delegated [New START] to him," he said. "In effect, it means that the opinions of Lugar, Shultz, Kissinger and all these others outside are kind of a little less significant." Ornstein referred to former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, who support the treaty.

The U.S. military leadership, and nearly all past commanders of American nuclear-weapons forces, have called for passage of the treaty. It would reduce the number of deployed, long-range nuclear warheads on each side from 2,200 to 1,550.

More critically, the treaty would allow both nuclear giants to check on the number and location of each other's long-range, ready-to-use nuclear weapons. Such inspections ended when the first START treaty expired in December.

Gates talked to Kyl about the extra $4 billion in a telephone call Friday. That money would be on top of an earlier administration pledge of a $10 billion increase.

"The administration is going above and beyond what's required in order to get approval from Senate Republicans," said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The group Heritage Action questioned the extra funds, which would bring the 10-year U.S. nuclear modernization budget to $84 billion.

"No amount of money can obscure the treaty's fatal flaws, including inadequate verification measures and limits on missile defense," said the group's top official, Michael A. Needham.

The administration has said the treaty doesn't limit U.S. missile defense, but some senators are worried by Russian statements suggesting otherwise.

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