Obama pleads for nuclear treaty approval
President Barack Obama pressed the US Senate on Tuesday to ratify a landmark nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, as Moscow raised the specter of a new arms race with the West.
"It's absolutely essential to our national security. We need to get it done," the US president declared after closed-door talks with top lawmakers, including Republicans looking to block action on the treaty this year.
Obama also highlighted the need to approve the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) "so we can monitor Russia's nuclear arsenal, reduce our nuclear weapons, and strengthen our relationship with Russia."
But Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his troops were "unanimous" that the pact might go forward "if there's time left" after lawmakers address feuds over tax cuts and government spending.
The 100-seat Senate currently counts 56 Democrats and two independents who vote with them, and ratification requires 67 votes. Republicans hold 42 seats now but that number will rise to 47 when a new Congress arrives in January.
And McConnell's top deputy, Republican Senator Jon Kyl, signalled earlier this month that he opposed bringing the treaty to a vote in 2010 -- citing worries about refurbishing the country's aging nuclear arsenal.
In a new wrinkle, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Russia moved tactical nuclear warheads to within miles (kilometers) of its border with NATO countries as recently as late spring.
Citing unnamed US officials, the newspaper said the moves ran afoul of pledges Moscow made as early as 1991 to remove the weapons from outposts near Eastern European NATO allies such as Poland.
The Russian deployments -- which unnamed officials said has been expanded several times in recent years -- was seen as an apparent hedge against the system of US-NATO missile defenses in countries that border Russia.
Kyl's office forwarded the piece to reporters, while Republican Senator John McCain called the report "very disturbing" and declared "it argues for a strict verification on any treaty, any agreement on which we're engaged."
At the same time, McCain described his "hope" that any technical concerns about START could be resolved to clear a path for ratification this year.
In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that failure by Russia and the West to agree on a new missile shield for Europe could spark "a new round of the arms race" that would see Moscow deploy new weapons.
The stark warning from a president who has a history of taking a softer line on Western policy came during a wide-ranging state-of-the-nation address that Medvedev primarily devoted to domestic issues.
One Democratic aide said Medvedev's comments, while not directly tied to the START debate, highlighted the need to approve the treaty to keep ties with Russia on solid footing.
The agreement, a key part of Obama's efforts to "reset" relations with Moscow, 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 US 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.
Some Republicans want iron-clad assurances the pact will not hamper US missile defense plans fiercely opposed by Russia, citing a unilateral statement from Moscow that moves on that front risked voiding the treaty.
But that statement isn't binding.
The treaty permits either side to pull out for national security reasons, and Republican Senator Jim DeMint -- a staunch defender of US missile defense plans -- has won Democratic support for a US counter recommitting Washington to pursue those efforts.
© 2010 AFP