By Mary Beth Sheridan
Monday, December 13, 2010; A01
With only days left in the lame-duck Congress, President Obama is pushing hard to accomplish something never before done by a Democratic president: successfully get a nuclear-arms-reduction treaty through the ratification process.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on "Face the Nation" on Sunday that "the support is there" to pass the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if it comes to the floor. The White House said Friday that Obama is willing to postpone his vacation until the U.S.-Russia pact is ratified.
But it has become clear that Obama is facing a fight over the same issue that derailed President Bill Clinton's quest for a similar accord - missile defense, a cherished Republican goal dating back to Ronald Reagan's presidency. When Republican senators now say they need a fuller debate on the treaty, this is an important part of what they want to discuss.
"Missile defense remains a major point of disagreement between the United States and Russia, and this treaty only makes the situation worse," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) wrote recently on National Review Online.
Some Republicans say they want to tweak the Senate resolution of ratification with the goal of then supporting it. Others argue the treaty itself needs amendments , which could kill it.
Treaty supporters say the outcry over missile defense is unfounded - and suspect it is a tactic to score political points. They note that there is almost nothing on missile defense in the treaty, which runs more than 300 pages with annexes, and Obama has continued many of George W. Bush's missile-defense policies.
"One of the great ironies is, he made sure there was no way to attack the treaty as being tough on missile defense," Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said of Obama. "And yet that's exactly one of the main rationales used by treaty critics."
To Republicans, though, the issue goes beyond the few words on missile defense in the treaty. It reflects their lack of trust in Obama and the Russians and their scars from years of fights with Democrats over the issue.
The Obama administration's policy is "not that radically different from what most Republicans say they want on missile defense," said Stephen Rademaker, a Bush administration arms-control official.
But that simple conclusion "overlooks the long and tortured history of missile defense," he said. "The positions the Obama administration is taking today are not the traditional positions of most Democrats."
U.S. defense officials started considering missile defense as far back as the 1950s. But it was Reagan's ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative, announced in 1983, that turned the issue into political dynamite.
Reagan's initiative, nicknamed "Star Wars," was assailed by Democrats as expensive, unworkable and a danger to global stability. The system envisioned fending off Russia's massive arsenal with space-based lasers and other weapons.
Subsequent presidents scaled back such plans, focusing instead on a missile system that would defend against more rudimentary nuclear weapons that could be fired by countries such as Iran or North Korea. President George W. Bush began building such a missile-defense system in Alaska and California.
Obama has continued developing it, albeit with fewer defensive rockets than Bush envisioned. Obama also has pursued - and achieved - one of Bush's other goals, agreement on a NATO missile-defense system.
But Republicans still haven't shaken their mistrust stemming from some of Obama's early steps.
"It's hard for an administration to say they're committed to a robust missile-defense system when . . . in their first budget submission, they cut the Missile Defense Agency by $1.4 billion," said one Republican congressional staffer, who was not authorized to comment on the record.
Obama administration officials say they reduced the budget to scale back some ineffective programs and to pause while studying how to proceed. Obama's 2011 budget request would return the agency's funding to levels almost as high as those under the Bush administration.
Republicans were also dismayed when Obama last year scrapped Bush's plan to base 10 missile interceptors in Eastern Europe to stop any long-range Iranian rockets headed for the United States.
Obama has introduced a plan focused on the more immediate threat of shorter-range Iranian missiles hitting Europe. It would introduce interceptors aimed at U.S.-bound missiles at a later stage, closer to the time when Iran might actually produce them.
Some Republicans have since come to prefer Obama's approach. But the botched White House rollout - with no advance notice to Eastern European countries - created an initial wave of alarm.
"It added to the fear of, holy crap, what are they doing?" said one Republican Senate staffer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Russia has staunchly opposed U.S. missile defense, fearing it will weaken the impact of its nuclear arsenal. It has been unmoved by arguments that the American system is aimed at rogue states, not Moscow. Russia had sought more concessions on missile defense in the New START pact.
The two sides settled on a bland-sounding phrase in the treaty's preamble that recognizes the "interrelationship" between nuclear weapons and missile defense.
The preamble is not legally binding. But Republicans are concerned that it could turn into a political restraint, said Christopher Ford, another former Bush arms-control official.
"One imagines it could become an argument against more robust missile-defense programming in the United States. Not a legal one, but 'Oh, my God, we can't do that, or the Russians will blow a gasket and withdraw from the treaty,' " he said. Such concerns were heightened when the Russians issued a unilateral statement saying that New START would be viable only if "there is no qualitative or quantitative buildup" in U.S. missile defense capabilities.
The United States responded that it would "continue improving and deploying its missile defense systems" against limited attack. Obama administration officials, including the head of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, have said the treaty will not constrain U.S. missile defense and actually will remove some old restrictions.
Key Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said in recent weeks that they couldn't vote for New START unless there were more safeguards for U.S. missile defense. Recently, however, McCain has indicated the issue could be resolved by changes to the resolution to ratify the treaty, which appears amenable to Democrats.
For a few Republicans, though, that might not be enough. Twenty-seven years after the introduction of Reagan's unrealized "Star Wars" plan, a more ambitious defense shield still has some congressional support.
"Reagan's vision, as we all know, was to render all nuclear missiles obsolete by developing the capability to shoot them down," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party favorite, said in a committee debate in September. "It's the only practical way to ever hope for a nuclear-free world."