President Obama made one departing promise as he wrapped up his meeting with world leaders here Sunday, telling his Russian counterpart that he will make approval of their nuclear agreement a top priority in the final days of the Democratic Congress.
In what one official called a "full-court press" on Capitol Hill, the administration is arguing that the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is critical to the future of U.S.- Russia relations, and that dragging things out could do irreparable damage.
"The president has made it very clear publicly that this is his highest priority in terms of foreign policy pieces of business to get done in the lame duck session," a senior administration official said here Sunday. "And if the president says that, then the rest of us are doing everything we can to make that happen."
As part of the effort to pass the treaty, the president's team is offering to spend $4 billion more on the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next five years, U.S. officials confirmed Sunday.
Signed by Obama and Medvedev last spring, the treaty would limit the U.S. and Russia to significantly fewer strategic arms within seven years after it is finalized. If the treaty isn't approved for ratification by the Senate in the lame duck session, Obama fears it could get bogged down in partisan delay after Republicans swell their ranks in the chamber next year. GOP leaders want to see greater investment in the nation's weapons production facilities, and the president has previously promised to pump up the 10-year investment by $10 billion.
Obama's pledge to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev came on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, where world leaders concluded their final day of talks about trade issues Sunday.
Capping off a week of summits, the APEC leaders approved a blueprint for growth that encourages the pursuit of free trade agreements and discourages protectionism. Leaders also agreed to work to cut down trade imbalances, government debt and wild fluctuations in exchange rates.
Obama's conversation with Medvedev was also about work in progress. Referring to Medvedev afterward as "my friend, Dmitri," Obama told reporters he had reiterated his commitment to get the START treaty approved before the end of the year and communicated to Congress "that it is a top priority."
The treaty was the first thing on the agenda at Sunday's meeting, according to White House sources. Obama explained to Medvedev the administration's strategy for achieving ratification, and also talked with him about the U.S. politics he thinks are complicating matters.
Privately, administration officials see the START as a case that will indicate whether the newly empowered Republicans intend to oppose any and all initiatives of the Democratic president.
Russian officials have expressed some concern about how long the treaty discussions are dragging out, which U.S. diplomats worry could signal trouble down the road.
"We think the START treaty is important for what it does as an arms control treaty," said one official, "but we also think that symbolically for this to linger on would begin to bleed into other aspects of U.S.-Russian relations. And neither country, of course, has an interest in doing that."
After the APEC meeting, Obama planned to visit the statue of the Great Buddha at Kamakura, then head home to Washington.