By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 8:22 PM
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced that Sunday he will vote against a new U.S.-Russia nuclear-arms accord, a move that could pressure other Republicans in what is likely to be a close vote at the end of Congress's lame-duck session.
His statement came as Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the chamber's second-ranking Republican, also said he would not support the treaty unless it was amended.
Supporters of the pact played down the announcements, saying they had not expected the backing of either senator. Vice President Biden and senior Democratic senators said the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) still has the votes to pass.
But the statements by the two leaders indicated how precarious passage has become, and how annoyed Republicans appear to be about Democrats' handling of the lame-duck session.
McConnell told CNN that he still has concerns about the treaty's verification provisions and about a few phrases in the document regarding missile defense. But above all, he appeared angry that the pact is being debated in the final days of the session, against the wishes of top Republicans, who have pressed to have the vote moved to February.
"I don't think this is the best time to be doing this. Members are uneasy about it, don't feel thoroughly familiar with it," he said. "We'd have been a lot better off to take our time."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), whom the White House had hoped would support the treaty, also sounded a negative note.
"If you really want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned," he said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Graham echoed Republican concerns that Democrats had pursued "special-interest politics" in the lame-duck session - such as passing the bill allowing gays to serve openly in the military - instead of providing more time to debate the treaty.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass), who is leading the effort to pass the pact, responded that plenty of time had been allotted to consider the pact, which has been public since spring.
"We are looking at having more days of debate on this treaty than START I, START II and the Moscow Treaty all put together," he said in a speech, referring to arms-control treaties from the past two decades.
Kerry has noted in recent days that he postponed consideration of the treaty several times over the past few months at Republicans' request. Despite his evident frustration, though, he has pledged to give Republicans ample time for debate in an attempt to avoid the appearance of jamming through the legislation.
The New START pact is President Obama's top foreign policy priority for the lame-duck session. The White House wants passage now, in part because it would need at least 14 Republican votes next year to get the two-thirds majority required. In the current Senate, only nine Republican votes are necessary.
Asked whether supporters had enough votes to pass the treaty, Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" that "I believe we do."
The White House has been working behind the scenes to secure passage, with Obama and other senior officials calling senators to press their case, officials said.
At the suggestion of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is considered a possible "yes" vote, Obama issued a letter to the Senate on Saturday pledging to fully build a four-stage missile-defense system in Europe. It came after Republican senators had expressed concern that plans for the fourth and most ambitious stage of the system - interceptors aimed at shooting down U.S.-bound Iranian long-range missiles - were hazy.
Biden praised McCain on Sunday for having raised such "substantive" issues but said some other Republicans were simply "against any arms control agreement."
New START would reduce both nuclear giants' long-range deployed warheads to 1,550, from a current ceiling of 2,200. The treaty also would reestablish a system under which U.S. and Russian officials could monitor each other's strategic nuclear arsenals. The U.S. military regards such inspections as crucial to maintaining stability with the world's other nuclear giant.
The Senate voted down an amendment by Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) on Sunday that probably would have killed the treaty by introducing language on small, tactical weapons, which are not included in the pact.
A closed Senate session is scheduled for Monday to discuss intelligence aspects of the treaty.