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GOP Senate leader opposes US-Russian arms deal

Democrats try to secure votes for pact

CONCERNS ON VERIFICATION “Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us,’’ said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. CONCERNS ON VERIFICATION
“Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us,’’ said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
By Donna Cassata
Associated Press / December 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Senate’s Republican leader said yesterday that he would oppose a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, damaging prospects for President Obama’s foreign policy priority in the final days of the postelection Congress. Top Democrats still expressed confidence the Senate would ratify the accord by year’s end.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, criticized the treaty’s verification system and expressed concern that the pact would limit US missile defense options even though Obama insisted Saturday that the treaty imposes no restrictions on missile defense.

“Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us,’’ McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union’’ a few hours before debate on the treaty resumed yesterday, the fifth day of consideration of the pact. “I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me.’’

Although McConnell’s opposition did not come as a surprise, proponents of the pact worried yesterday about how hard he would work to defeat the accord. Treaties require a two-thirds majority of those voting in the Senate, and Republican votes are critical to Obama’s success in getting the landmark agreement.

In response, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We respect Senator McConnell’s view, but we were not surprised by it, and certainly were not counting on his support to achieve Senate approval.’’

Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, expressed disappointment with McConnell’s opposition.

He suggested, however, in a statement that several Senate Republicans “share the belief that this treaty is too critical to our national security to delay, and I look forward to strong bipartisan support to pass this treaty before we end this session of Congress.’’ Reid set a vote for tomorrow to end the debate and move to a final vote.

Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats’ No. 2 leader in the Senate, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in news show appearances that they believe they have the votes to ratify the treaty.

After several hours of debate yesterday, Democrats turned back an amendment by Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho that would have altered the treaty, effectively killing it.

By a vote of 60 to 32, the Senate rejected the measure to add language on tactical nuclear weapons to the preamble of the treaty.

Such a move would have forced it back to negotiations, dooming the accord.

It marked the second time in two days that Democrats had stopped GOP amendments.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the accord — it is known as New START — in April.

It would limit each country’s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200.

The treaty would also establish a system for monitoring and verification. US weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.

Republicans have argued that the treaty’s preamble would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the US develops a missile defense system in Europe.

Democrats argued that the preamble reference to missile defense systems was nonbinding and had no legal authority.

“This treaty needs to be fixed,’’ said Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “And we are not going to have the time to do that in the bifurcated way or trifurcated way that we’re dealing with it here, with other issues being parachuted in all the time.’’

Although Kyl did not predict whether the treaty would be rejected or ratified, he said gaining the two-thirds vote would depend upon whether senators would be able to consider the amendments Republicans wanted to offer.

“I predicted a couple of weeks ago that we would not have time to do this adequately, and I think my prediction’s coming true,’’ he said.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and one who supports ratification, said more amendments to the treaty needed to be heard.

“Several Republicans will support it, and I join the chairman in believing that there are the votes there. The problem is really getting to that final vote,’’ Lugar said.

On Saturday, Senate Democrats deflected an initiative by Republicans that would have forced American and Russian negotiators to reopen talks.

The 59-to-37 vote against the amendment by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, indicated the difficulty Obama is having in trying to win ratification of the treaty before a new, more Republican Senate assumes power in January.

Led by McCain, Obama’s GOP opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Republicans tried to strike the words from the treaty’s preamble that they say would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the United States develops a missile defense system in Europe.