New START nuclear treaty set to clear US Senate hurdle

16th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Amid stiff opposition from President Barack Obama's Republican foes, a landmark US-Russia nuclear arms treaty was set to clear a key US Senate hurdle Thursday on the way to ratification.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, controlled by Obama's Democratic allies, was all but certain to refer the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to the full Senate for final approval.

"The stakes are significant: By ratifying this treaty, we will limit Russia's nuclear arsenal," said Democratic Senator John Kerry, the committee chairman. "Now, it is time for us to act."

But all eyes were on the panel's Republicans: 67 votes are needed for ratification, Democrats control just 59 seats, and only two of the chamber's 41 Republicans have openly pledged their support for the accord to date.

The treaty -- signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama at an elaborate ceremony in Prague in April -- restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002.

Senate Republicans have said they worry the accord could hamper US missile defense plans -- a charge flatly denied by the Pentagon -- have concerns about Russian implementation, and want assurances about plans to modernize the existing US nuclear arsenal.

The panel approved by voice vote a resolution authored by its top Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, aimed at addressing those concerns, with Republican Senator James Risch the sole "no."

Risch said the US intelligence community had provided "troubling" information to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, but Kerry shot back that the community had also not changed its support of the treaty.

The panel also defeated, in a 13-6 vote, an amendment from Republican Senator John Barrasso that Kerry said would have "the net effect of killing the treaty" by striking any mention of US missile defense plans from the pact, requiring a re-negotiation.

Republicans also aimed to deny Obama what would be a major diplomatic victory ahead of November 2 mid-term elections that will decide control of the US Congress.

Kerry agreed this week that bringing the accord to a final ratification vote before the elections "would be a mistake" and said it should be done when lawmakers return late this year "without any politics."

Republican Senator Jim DeMint was set to offer an amendment to Lugar's resolution that would declare Washington "intends to improve its defenses, including missile defense of all ranges," according to a summary.

The amendment would invite Russia "to adopt a fundamentally defensive posture," offer to coordinate on defensive capabilities, and declare that US missile defense plans are not a reason for Moscow to withdraw from the treaty.

Leaving little to chance, Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates with wooing wary lawmakers over the August break, according to Kerry.

And the senator warned colleagues reluctant to back the treaty that Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, was watching how US lawmakers handle ratification of the accord, stressing: "We have to be sensitive to that."

And senior US diplomat Rose Gottemoeller, who helped negotiate the accord, warned Tuesday that ties with Russia could suffer "some penalties," with Moscow possibly refusing to back Washington's hardline policy on Iran.

She also warned that allowing the START deal to collapse would mean the United States would no longer be able to closely monitor Russia's nuclear weaponry, as the new treaty allows for intrusive inspections.

"I think primarily we lose our eyes and ears inside the Russian federation," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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