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Kerry girds for fight to ratify arms pact

Hearings begin today on treaty with Russia

As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry must try to secure the votes to pass the START treaty. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry must try to secure the votes to pass the START treaty. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Senator John F. Kerry, who today will lead the effort to ratify a new arms control pact with Russia, said he expects a tough fight for passage because partisanship has seeped into what has historically been bipartisan cooperation on nuclear weapons pacts.

Kerry’s comments, his first on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty debate, came in an interview as the Massachusetts Democrat prepared to be the Obama administration’s point man; as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has the job of sending the treaty to the full Senate and securing the two-thirds vote needed to approve it.

No arms control treaty with Russia or the former Soviet Union has garnered fewer than 84 votes in the Senate but that is likely to change, Kerry said. He expressed confidence that he will be able to get at least the minimum 67 votes for passage, but perhaps not nearly as many as for previous treaties.

“I could argue that 68 is 84 in 2010,’’ Kerry said. “My goal is to pass it. If it is 68 votes it is 68 votes. So be it. That is a lot of senators these days.’’

The Foreign Relations Committee will kick off the debate today in the first of a series of hearings on the treaty — known as New START — which was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this month. Testifying before the panel will be two former secretaries of defense, James R. Schlesinger, a Republican, and William J. Perry, a Democrat.

The treaty would require the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed nuclear arms to 1,550 each, about 30 percent below currently agreed upon levels.

However, the agreement is seen as only a first step. Obama says he will pursue further weapons cuts and other treaties to ban nuclear testing and the production of nuclear material — all part of a long-term vision to convince other nations to forswear atomic arms.

The treaty “is not just about Washington and Moscow,’’ Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of State and the lead negotiator on the START treaty, told the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank, on Monday. “It is about the entire world community.’’

Indeed, some arms control specialists are concerned that a lack of broad support for the START treaty could endanger other efforts.

“It is important that the pursuit of ratification leads to bipartisan support,’’ said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a think tank that supports ratification. “It is going to be important that this treaty sets the tone for future Senate debates.’’

Passage requires more than the votes of 57 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party. Even with Democratic unity, at least eight Republican votes would be needed to reach the necessary two-thirds.

Many Republicans have not signaled how they will vote. But some conservative Republicans are planning to raise questions about both the START treaty and — in what some officials described as a first — the negotiating tactics used by the administration, according to congressional aides.

Opponents assert that the agreement could restrict the ability of the United States to introduce new weapons designed to defend against missile attacks, noting that the treaty’s preamble states that the parties are “acknowledging the link between strategic offensive and strategic defensive armaments,’’ meaning that they will be kept in balance.

Kerry said that preamble is necessary because if one side were to construct sufficient missile defenses to render the other’s offensive arsenal obsolete it could reignite a nuclear arms race.

But Russian officials have said they believe they have a US commitment to maintain current missile defenses and that Russia reserves the right to withdraw from the treaty if US missile defenses are expanded. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has insisted that there is no such understanding and stressed that the preamble is not part of the legally binding treaty.

US and Russian officials “are making public statements completely divergent of one another,’’ said Steven Groves, a specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation who is opposed to the START treaty.

Another critic, Douglas J. Feith, who was undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration, said that even if the language is not binding it could complicate future US decisions. For example, he said US lawmakers might raise concerns that US missile defense plans harm relations with Russia.

“The Russians knew what they were doing,’’ said Feith.

As a result, some GOP senators — including Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Kyl of Arizona, and John Barrasso of Wyoming — are considering requesting documents from the administration detailing what was said during the months of negotiations with the Russians, including notes from meetings and other classified documents, according to a senior GOP policy official in the Senate.

Kerry declined to say whether he would support such a request, but insisted that during the upcoming hearings there will be “ample opportunity to cross-examine all of the negotiators, in classified and unclassified settings.’’

Kerry’s committee will review the treaty as well as a series of technical reports laying out the procedures that each side will use to verify that the other is living up to the terms of the pact. The package will also include a lengthy analysis, along with a 10-year plan to modernize the US nuclear arsenal and a top secret report by intelligence agencies on the ability of the United States to monitor Russian compliance with the treaty.

Kerry yesterday vowed to give voice to all viewpoints as the committee reviews the pact in the coming weeks.

“The way to ratify it is to fully explain it, vet it, and thoroughly address any kinds of concerns that people may have,’’ he said.

But he said he hopes to complete the task on a “fairly fast-paced schedule.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.