By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 2:34 AM
One of President Obama's top foreign-policy goals suffered a potentially ruinous setback when the Senate's second-ranking Republican said the U.S. nuclear treaty with Russia should not be considered until next year.
The statement Tuesday by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) stunned the White House and Democrats, who scrambled to save the pact. It came just days after Obama declared that ratifying the treaty was his top foreign-policy priority for the lame-duck session of Congress.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) needs 67 votes to pass. Because of Democratic losses in the midterm elections, it would be harder to approve next year, requiring at least 14 Republican votes rather than nine now.
The administration will make a last-ditch effort Wednesday to appeal to Kyl, the Republicans' main negotiator, in a meeting including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, several officials said.
"Failure to pass the New START treaty this year would endanger our national security," Biden warned in a statement Tuesday.
Kyl's decision came despite an administration offer Friday to pour an extra $4.1 billion into modernization of the nation's nuclear complex. Because the treaty would reduce both sides' stockpiles of nuclear weapons, Republicans have insisted that the administration spend more money to ensure that existing U.S. weapons are well maintained.
Kyl's decision reflects a more assertive Republican stance following the midterm elections.
"The price [for getting the treaty] went up after the elections. Everyone should have known that," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
If the treaty were to fail, Obama's ability to negotiate other treaties would be damaged, foreign diplomats say.
New START reduces each side's deployed, long-range weapons from 2,200 to 1,550. More critically in the eyes of U.S. military leaders, it allows each side to inspect the other's nuclear forces, to ensure there is no hidden buildup. Such inspections stopped when an earlier treaty expired last year.
"Without ratification of this treaty, we will have no Americans on the ground to inspect Russia's nuclear activities . . . [and] less cooperation between the two nations that account for 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons," Biden said.
Some key Republicans have said they are prepared to approve the treaty if there is stronger ratification language ensuring that it doesn't crimp U.S. missile defense, and if they are assured that existing American weapons will be maintained.
Democrats seemed unsure whether the delay amounted to a death knell for the treaty, but their leaders vowed to fight on.
"I do not believe the door is closed to considering New START during the lame-duck session," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after talking to Kyl.
Kyl, in a statement released Tuesday morning, said he had told Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that "I did not think" the treaty could be considered during the lame-duck session because of other congressional work "and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization."
"I appreciate the recent effort by the administration to address some of the issues we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry" and the administration, Kyl said.
Senior U.S. officials said they found the statement jarring because Kyl had sent the administration questions Monday night about the extra $4.1 billion for the nuclear complex, which officials interpreted as a sign that a deal might be close.
Still, leading Republicans have cautioned in recent days that it would be difficult to set aside three days or more for a treaty during a session crowded with tax and budget issues.
And there have been growing calls by conservatives to hold off on START until next year. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has told newly elected Republican lawmakers not to "listen to desperate politically motivated arguments about the need for hasty consideration" of the treaty.
Sokolski said Democratic fears about ratifying the pact in the new Senate seemed overblown.
"Since when, if the leadership decides, does somebody have the votes to overwhelm the leadership? The tea party did well, but not that well," he said.
Five Republicans who are opposed to the treaty discussed their concerns in a report released last month by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
They said the treaty's limit of 700 deployed nuclear delivery systems was "a bad deal" because it required more U.S. than Russian reductions. They also said the 10-year funding proposed for modernizing the nuclear complex - a total of $84.1 billion - was "a good start" but did not meet the total need.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.