Senate takes up U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty

The White House seeks swift passage of the New START Treaty, central to Obama’s nuclear arms agenda and his plans to improve relations with Russia.

Reporting from Washington

Senate deliberations on President Obama’s new arms reduction agreement with Russia begin this week amid concern that opponents may seek to delay, if not defeat, the sweeping nuclear weapons pact.

The White House delivered the plan to the Senate on Thursday and a lengthy list of former U.S. officials, including pillars of Republican administrations, have endorsed the pact. Although Republicans have not vowed to oppose it, supporters worry that skeptics may seize on details of the voluminous treaty to hold it up.

The agreement, called the New START treaty, succeeds the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties of the 1990s. It is central to Obama’s nuclear arms agenda and his plans to improve relations with Russia.

Obama “has been clear that it’s in our national security interests to get this ratified this year,” said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment.

The agreement, reached last month, lowers the maximum number of long-distance warheads deployed by each of the former Cold War foes to 1,550 from 2,200. It limits to 800 the maximum number of launchers — missiles, submarines and bombers — the countries maintain to deliver the nuclear weapons, and sets out procedures for verification of compliance. There has been no verification system in place since the previous pact expired in December.

The White House and the treaty’s supporters in the Senate, led by Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have begun mobilizing in recent days to build support for its swift passage.

The administration and its allies hope that the treaty will not only pave the way toward better cooperation with Russia, but will also encourage nonnuclear nations to forswear pursuing nuclear weapons.

In part to draw Republican support, the administration last week submitted a 10-year plan to spend $80 billion on the nation’s nuclear infrastructure. Some Republicans have been worried that the U.S. nuclear complex has been allowed to deteriorate.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen are expected to testify Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker III are to testify next week, and are expected to signal their support.

The Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on the treaty in June, but it is unclear whether the full Senate will act before the August recess. It may be tough to schedule a vote in the fall because of campaign demands.

Republican skeptics are expected to focus on concerns that the treaty could restrict U.S. plans to expand missile defenses. Russian officials believe missile defense expansion could ultimately overwhelm their nuclear force, and they have warned that they will withdraw from the treaty if the United States continues with its expansion plans.

Opponents of the agreement are expected to argue that this threat may constrain the United States. The White House insists the treaty won’t affect U.S. plans.

One potential opponent, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, questioned the need for the treaty Friday, saying the United States has had no plans to expand its nuclear arsenal and Russia has been dismantling its weapons to save money.

He said in a statement that to the extent that the treaty is a step toward Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, “it is a naive and potentially risky strategic approach.”