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Mullen calls on Senate to pass START treaty

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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Felicia Sonmez
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:44 AM

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appealed to the Senate on Monday to quickly pass a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, saying it was "vital to national security."

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The letter from Adm. Mike Mullen could increase pressure on wavering Republican senators, who, if they voted no, would be in the position of rejecting the military's advice on a matter of national security. The plea came as members of both parties worked furiously to nail down support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which could be up for vote as early as Tuesday.

Supporters say they have the votes to pass the treaty but acknowledge that the margin is likely to be close. "It's going to be a real slog, house-by-house combat, if you will," Sen. Charles Shumer (D-N.Y.) said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday. President Obama and other senior officials have been calling on lawmakers to try to lock down votes.

Two top Republican senators, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and second-ranking Senate Republican Jon Kyl (Ariz.), announced on Sunday that they would oppose the treaty, citing what they called flaws in the document and their anger at the Obama administration's drive to get it passed in the waning days of the lame-duck session.

The administration is eager to hold the vote before next year, when it will need at least 14 Republican votes to pass. Now at least nine Republican votes are required to reach the two-thirds threshold for approval.

The Russian government also jumped into the fray on Monday.

As senators debated amendments to the treaty that would dramatically alter it, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said no such changes would be acceptable.

"I can only underscore that the Strategic Nuclear Arms treaty ... in our view fully answers to the national interests of Russia and the United States," Lavrov told the Interfax news agency. "It cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations."

Republicans have charged that the treaty's verification measures are too weak, and several object to mentions of missile defense in the pact, which they fear could be used by Russia as a pretext to seek limits on the U.S. defense system. The administration denies the treaty constrains missile defense and says the verification measures are stronger, not weaker, than in previous arms-control pacts. Obama sent a letter to the Senate on Sunday saying that the United States would fully deploy a missile defense system in Europe.

So far, supporters of the treaty have easily defeated amendments that would fundamentally change it.

Mullen's letter was, in effect, a rebuke to Republicans who have sought to postpone treaty consideration until next year and change central parts of the pact. "The sooner it is ratified, the better," Mullen wrote.

He emphasized that he himself had been involved in the treaty's negotiations. "Military perspectives were thoroughly considered," he wrote.


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