Obama pushes for Senate vote on new arms treaty with Russia

By Mary Beth Sheridan, Walter Pincus and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:24 PM

President Obama pushed Thursday for ratification of a nuclear-arms treaty with Moscow by year's end despite Republican opposition, calling the pact a "national security imperative" and warning that delaying it would weaken the United States.

He said he was "confident" that the treaty could attract enough votes in the Senate, where GOP reservations have set up a political clash over a pact that the administration sees as crucial for U.S. foreign policy.

"It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New START treaty this year," Obama said during a bipartisan White House meeting on the issue. "There is no higher national security priority" for the current lame-duck Senate session. He warned that without a treaty, it would be impossible to verify reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal.

"This New START treaty is completely in line with a tradition of bipartisan cooperation on this issue," Obama said. "This is not about politics. It's about national security. This is not a matter than can be delayed."

He said that "if we delay indefinitely, American leadership on nonproliferation and America's national security will be weakened."

Asked whether the pact could get the needed two-thirds Senate vote for ratification, Obama said: "I'm confident that we should be able to get the votes." He said previous such treaties have been ratified with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The administration signaled that it would not be discouraged after the second-ranking Senate Republican, Jon Kyl (Ariz.), said that a deal didn't seem possible in the lame-duck session.

"The president and the administration will push forward on having the Senate ratify the START treaty before the end of the year," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.

Asked if there were enough votes, even without Kyl, to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Gibbs said, "We think we'll get them."

The administration has been eager to lock in the treaty before next year, when it will require 14 Republican votes to pass, rather than nine now. The pact needs 67 votes to be ratified.

In an effort to signal bipartisan support for the treaty, Vice President Biden hosted a White House meeting Thursday morning with current and former high-ranking officials who support the pact, including several Republicans. Among those attending were former secretaries of state Madeleine K. Albright, James A. Baker III and Henry A. Kissinger; former defense secretaries William S. Cohen and William J. Perry; and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser. Baker, Kissinger and Cohen are Republicans. Scowcroft served in four Republican administrations.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also attended the meeting. Other participants included Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the committee; Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

Obama attended the meeting briefly, sitting between Biden and Kissinger as he delivered remarks explaining why he considers the treaty a top priority.

Biden has called the treaty vital to U.S. security, since it allows the world's two nuclear giants to inspect each other's stockpiles and ensure there is no secret escalation. Officials say a failure to ratify the treaty could deal a harsh setback to the "reset" in relations with Russia, which has led to cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

A negative vote would also damage Obama's credibility internationally, analysts said.

"It's hard to do business with an administration that cannot fulfill its agreements," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said in an interview in Moscow.

The New START will cut long-range deployed nuclear weapons on both sides by up to 30 percent. Kyl's main concern has been getting the administration to come up with a big enough budget to ensure maintenance of the weapons that will remain.

The Obama administration has so far offered $14 billion over what would have been the regular $70 billion nuclear modernization budget for the next decade.

Kyl and other key Republicans have indicated a deal could come together next year. But treaty supporters worry that if the vote is put off, it might not be rescheduled for months.

Lugar, the strongest Republican supporter of the treaty, lashed out at his party Wednesday.

"If you're a Republican, you anticipate that the lay of the land is going to be much more favorable in January, and therefore [you] would say, 'If we do not have to make tough choices now, why make tough choices?' " Lugar told The Cable blog.

Kyl has denied that he is politically motivated, saying the problem with considering the New START is the crowded lame-duck schedule.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) assured Kyl in a statement Wednesday that lawmakers "will have time to consider and ratify" the treaty after Thanksgiving.

Conservative groups are working hard to counteract Obama's efforts to have the treaty taken up soon. Last week, 13 former Republican senators wrote to Senate leaders urging a delay until next year.

They wrote that no arms treaty had ever been taken up during a lame-duck session and called it "wholly inappropriate" for members "whose replacements have just been elected to deny the latter the opportunity to advise and consent" on the accord.

Critics worry some of the treaty's nonbinding language could force the U.S. government to cut back on missile defense, a contention the administration disputes. Some critics also question whether verification provisions are adequate.

Clinton discussed the treaty with lawmakers at a Capitol Hill breakfast Wednesday and said afterward that the administration would "intensify" its discussions with Republicans.

Senior officials had discussed setting up a meeting Wednesday between Kyl and Clinton, Biden and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, but it did not come together, according to people familiar with the talks.

If the administration does not get Kyl's backing, it faces an uphill battle in securing enough votes for passage. One Senate aide who supports the pact said, however, that the effort could succeed. "It's really up to the administration to prove they're going to put their full weight behind it," said the staffer, who was not authorized to comment publicly.

One test of the administration's vote-seeking efforts appeared when retiring Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) called on Obama on Wednesday to reassure the Baltic states and Eastern Europe that the treaty will not lead to less U.S. support for them.

"I must receive strongest assurances that this policy does not once again amount to the the United States leaving our brothers and sisters in the former captive nations alone against undue pressures from Russia," he said.

Rose Gottemoeller, the chief negotiator of the treaty, noted Wednesday that only two days of debate were needed in 2003 before unanimous approval of the Moscow Treaty, a nuclear arms-reduction pact signed by President George W. Bush.

In 1992, the first START treaty had five days of Senate floor debate before it passed 93-6. Eight current Republican senators voted for that treaty signed by President George H.W. Bush.

sheridanm@washpost.com pincusw@washpost.com

Staff writer Kathy Lally in Moscow contributed to this report.

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