Obama foes move to kill Russia nuclear treaty

15th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

US President Barack Obama's Republican foes planned an all-out effort to kill a landmark nuclear arms control treaty with Russia as the US Senate moved Wednesday to open its formal debate on the pact.

Obama has made the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) a lynchpin of his drive to "reset" relations with Moscow, and called for passage this year in what would be a signal diplomatic victory six weeks after an elections rout.

Democrats control 58 seats and need nine of the 42 Republicans to reach the 67 votes needed for ratification, but will need 14 Republicans when a new Congress convenes in January that reflects the November 2 ballot results.

With the Senate due to launch debate at 2:15 pm (1915 GMT), just three Republicans have said publicly to date that they will back the treaty, though others have signalled that they will ultimately vote in favor of it.

Republicans -- led by their number-two, Senator Jon Kyl -- have vowed to block ratification in 2010 and planned to force potentially politically painful votes on "treaty-killer" amendments that stood virtually no chance of passing.

In one such gambit, Republicans were to push to modify the treaty's non-binding preamble to strike language tying offensive nuclear weapons to defensive systems, an unmistakable reference to US missile defense plans.

"START's preamble specifically places limits on missile defense and weakens the ability of the United States to defend itself," said Republican Senator John Barrasso, author of an amendment to strip out that language.

"Since the administration claims the preamble language is non-binding, they should have no problem eliminating this restrictive language from the treaty," he said in a statement.

But the Pentagon has said the preamble and treaty overall impose no missile defense limitations, and arms control experts warn changing the preamble would force the accord back to the negotiating table, effectively killing it.

Republicans were all-but-certain to fail in their quest to rally the 51 votes needed in the 100-seat Senate to amend the treaty.

The struggle for Democrats boiled down to getting the nine Republicans needed to reach the 67 votes required for ratification -- with the legislative clock of the year-end session ticking away.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint planned to require that the entire treaty be read aloud on on the Senate floor, a step usually waived, in a move that could burn at least one workday off the calendar, his office said.

"What a colossal waste of time," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "This treaty has been around since April, or May, even a slow reader could finish ready every word of that many, many different times."

Reid predicted on Tuesday that the accord would be ratified this year.

The agreement -- which has the support of virtually every present and former US foreign policy or national security heavyweight -- restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.

The agreement, which has broad American public support, would also return US inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia's arsenal since the agreement's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.

And the White House has responded to worries from Kyl and others about funding the upkeep of the US nuclear arsenal by budgeting some 84.1 billion dollars over ten years for modernization and maintenance.

The Russian lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has indicated it will ratify the treaty only after its ratification by the US Senate.

© 2010 AFP

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