By Mary Beth Sheridan and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; A01
The nation's top military officer appealed to the Senate on Monday to ratify a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, as supporters attracted more Republican votes, making it increasingly likely that the pact would be approved.
The letter from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could intensify the pressure on wavering Republicans by putting them in the awkward position of rejecting the military's advice on a national security issue if they voted "no."
The letter came amid intense efforts on both sides to sway senators on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which could face a vote as early as Tuesday. Seven Republican senators have publicly supported it, putting the administration within two votes of victory. The White House says it has the votes for passage.
But the pact has gotten caught up in the political tempest of the lame-duck session, with Republicans angry that the Obama administration is pushing the treaty and other favored issues before the Democrats' Senate majority shrinks next year.
"Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician's desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the first of the year," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) declared in a floor speech. He and the second-ranking Republican in the chamber - Jon Kyl (Ariz.) - came out Sunday against the treaty.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Republican lawmakers had raised legitimate issues, but "we believe that we've answered those concerns . . . Any objections at this point are more about politics than substance." Senate Republicans are in the unusual position of bucking top U.S. military leaders twice in a week - first on the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation, which Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates supported, and now on New START. Nearly all current and former commanders of U.S. nuclear-weapons forces have backed the treaty.
Mullen's letter was a rebuke to Republicans who have sought to postpone consideration of the treaty until next year and amend it to allow more inspections and to raise the number of permitted nuclear-capable missiles and aircraft.
"The sooner it is ratified, the better," he wrote, saying that New START was "vital to U.S. national security."
Mullen emphasized that he had been personally involved in the treaty's negotiations. "Military perspectives were thoroughly considered," he wrote.
The letter was requested by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has led the effort to ratify the treaty.
The treaty reduces deployed, long-range warheads on both sides by up to 30 percent and trims the number of submarines, missiles and heavy bombers that carry them. More important, in the military's eyes, the pact reestablishes a system in which each side inspects the other's strategic arsenal. A similar monitoring system ended last year when START I expired.
Without such inspections, Mullen wrote, the military might be forced into "an inordinate and unwise shift of scarce resources from other high priority requirements to maintain adequate awareness of Russian nuclear forces." Officials have said, for example, that they would have to divert satellites from hot spots such as Afghanistan to increase coverage of Russia.
New START has split the Republican Party. Many foreign-policy luminaries, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker III, support the pact.
In the Senate, there are several camps. Some Republicans, including Jim DeMint (S.C.), have said that arms-control treaties are outdated and, instead, want to develop a highly advanced missile-defense shield - something along the lines of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" concept.
But others, although critical of New START, seem more upset that the Obama administration stopped negotiating with Republican leaders and moved to get the pact approved by year's end. McConnell had called for the treaty to be considered early next year, when Republicans would have more votes. Currently, at least nine Republican votes are needed to pass the treaty; next year, the number will be 14.
"What he's trying to say is: We don't want to see this by the end of the year. We want to see it with our shaping next year," said Henry Sokolski, an arms-control official in the George H.W. Bush administration who heads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
The vote comes as some Republicans - including Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a prominent opponent of the treaty - are positioning themselves for a presidential run and emphasizing their bona fides on national security. A few influential Republican groups, notably the Heritage Foundation's grass-roots arm, have taken strong positions against the pact.
The administration had worked for months to win the support of Kyl, the main Republican negotiator, ultimately pledging to spend an additional $14 billion to ease his concerns about modernizing the country's aging nuclear complex. But when the senator from Arizona declared in November that there wasn't time to pass the treaty during the lame-duck session, the administration decided to work around him.
The White House is optimistic it has the supermajority of two-thirds of senators required to pass the treaty. On Monday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) declared he would vote for it. Asked whether Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) would support the pact, spokeswoman Andrea Candrian said, "Yes, he's planning on it."
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R.-Ga.), a Foreign Relations Committee member who supported the pact in committee and spoke in favor of it on the floor, told the Hill newspaper on Monday that it "sounds like" he will vote in favor of ratification.
Four other Republican senators have publicly backed New START - Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio).
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told reporters that he was leaning toward supporting the treaty. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Monday that he has not made a decision yet but that it appeared "the caveats that I've laid out are going to be dealt with."
Historically, nuclear arms-reduction treaties have passed with overwhelming majorities.
"This has become, hands down, the most partisan debate," said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
As senators debated Monday two amendments that would fundamentally alter the treaty - increasing the number of permitted inspections and nuclear delivery vehicles - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such changes were unacceptable.
"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."
Supporters of the treaty easily defeated both amendments.