The White House is scrambling to strike a last-minute deal with congressional Republicans to save its new nuclear arms treaty with Russia from a lingering death.
Obama administration officials are trying to win the support of the GOP point man, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, to schedule a ratification vote in the upcoming lame-duck session rather than next year, when Republicans will hold six more Senate seats.
The treaty, which also awaits ratification in Russia, would lower each country’s maximum number of long-range active nuclear warheads and set procedures for them to inspect each other’s strategic nuclear bases.
A failure by the Senate to approve the treaty would deny the United States any on-the-ground means of inspecting Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal and would probably set back improved relations between the countries.
President Obama declared Thursday that one of his top priorities is approval of the treaty, which is known as New START and is perhaps his most tangible foreign policy achievement. But some senior Republicans, such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, predict there won’t be time to take up the treaty this year.
The pact’s supporters say they are hopeful they can win the 67 votes needed for ratification. Others, however, fear that if the next Congress is even more polarized, the treaty may never be brought to a vote.
James Lindsay, a former national security aide in the Clinton administration who is at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this week that the treaty was “in intensive care.”
New START is widely supported in the U.S. national security establishment. Its backers include former Republican secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Many experts view it as a modest step to scale back the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
But Republicans have raised several objections. Kyl wants a greater commitment from Obama that his goal of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons won’t mean deep cuts in spending on the infrastructure that supports and maintains the arsenal.
He also wants assurances on the amount of the appropriation in next year’s budget for the nuclear infrastructure, and what the administration intends to put in its 10-year plan for nuclear weapons modernization, according to Senate aides.
Democrats counter that $80 billion has been committed to the nuclear complex over the next decade, but Kyl wants more. To try to reassure Kyl about the 2011 appropriation, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) already has proposed adding $100 million to next year’s spending on nuclear weapons.
Failure of the treaty would damage the administration’s so-called reset of relations with Russia and strike a heavy blow to Obama’s efforts to reduce nuclear arms, an achievement aides hoped would be a bright spot in the president’s foreign policy record.
Any deal probably has to be struck this coming week, before Senate leaders set their plans for the lame-duck session, which begins Nov. 15.
One senior Senate aide said that with the upper house already committed to wrestling with a stopgap budget measure and a debate over whether to extend tax cuts beyond the end of the year, “it’s just a lot to ask for them to take this on. Some of these guys have been voted out of office — they just want to go home.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Supporters need to win eight Republican votes for ratification of the treaty. Next year they will need to round up 14.
There also have been some worrisome developments in Russia. The international committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, last week withdrew its support for the treaty, citing concerns that the Senate’s interpretation seemed different from what diplomats had agreed upon.
Although the move was mostly symbolic, it was a warning that Russia could back away from the agreement if the Obama administration bends too far in response to Republican pressure.
With the treaty still in limbo, an additional arms treaty with Russia that would sharply reduce nuclear arsenals is now a distant hope.
Arms control advocates also fear that the new Congress’ push for budget cuts will take its toll on the billions of dollars that are spent to keep nuclear arsenals secure and prevent proliferation in the United States and other countries.