By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:28 PM
Leading Republican senators charged Friday that a U.S.-Russian nuclear treaty could handcuff U.S. efforts to develop a missile-defense program, and they rallied around an amendment that could kill the pact if approved.
Treaty supporters appear able to easily muster the 51 votes necessary to defeat the amendment. But the impassioned debate over missile defense, which stretched into the evening, showed the degree of Republicans' concern over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and highlighted how narrow the final vote on the pact may be.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said he thinks he will get the 67 votes necessary to ratify the treaty, as long as the process is smooth.
It was evident, however, that Republican anger was growing over Democrats' effort to squeeze in votes on several other bills before the end of the lame-duck session. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had been seen as leaning toward supporting the treaty, appealed to Democrats to drop votes scheduled for Saturday on bills on immigration and gays in the military.
If they didn't, he warned, "I don't think the future of the START treaty over the next several days is going to be successful."
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a Republican leader on national-defense issues who has been courted by the White House, was one of the main sponsors of a resolution to strip language on missile defense from the preamble of the treaty.
Missile defense is barely mentioned in the treaty. But Republicans are concerned about a sentence in the preamble that notes the "interrelationship" between U.S. missile defense and the Russian nuclear arsenal.
"We have handed the Russian government the political pressure they have sought for so long to bind our future decisions" on missile defense, McCain declared.
Kerry fired back that the preamble was not legally binding, and noted that U.S. military officials had testified that the treaty didn't limit American missile defense.
The amendment "requires us to go back to the Russians and renegotiate. That's a treaty-killer," Kerry said.
He added that the issue had already been addressed in the resolution of ratification that the Senate will consider in its final vote. That resolution doesn't alter the text of the treaty.
McCain has not yet said how he would vote on the New START treaty. But he and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) both voted Wednesday to proceed with debate on the pact - a sign that supporters interpreted as encouraging.
In his floor speech, McCain acknowledged rumors that some Republicans might vote against New START because of the Democrats' decision to bring back the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation.
"I reject that allegation," he said.
But, when asked whether Republicans would vote against New START if the votes on other bills advanced, Graham said: "Every day that goes by, it becomes impossible for me - harder for me to go to my colleagues and say, 'Let's continue to be serious in the lame duck.' "
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.