Obama woos senators on key Russia treaty vote

21st December 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Barack Obama and his top military and diplomatic advisers pressed wary lawmakers Monday to back a landmark arms control treaty with Russia on the eve of a key senate test vote on the accord.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wooed Republicans by telephone, lawmakers said, as the top US uniformed officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, wrote a letter unreservedly backing the pact.

"This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military, and we all support ratification," Mullen wrote, renewing his and the Pentagon's strong backing for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

START, a linchpin of Obama's efforts to "reset" ties with Russia, was on track to clear a procedural hurdle as early as Tuesday, and the White House and top Democrats expressed confidence it would ultimately win ratification.

The treaty was expected to get the 60 votes needed to end debate and move forward to a final ratification ballot expected by Thursday, when it would need support from two-thirds of senators voting, 67 if all 100 are present.

"The White House believes that before Congress leaves town the Senate will ratify the new START treaty," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, who told reporters Obama was calling key senators.

Democrats easily defeated three Republican efforts to amend the treaty, as they had earlier attempts to change the document -- which would have forced a new round of negotiations with Moscow, effectively killing the accord.

As the sixth day of debate unfolded, US Senators met behind closed doors for nearly four hours to discuss classified intelligence matters tied to the accord.

Afterwards, Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts confirmed that he would back the treaty, and Republican Senator Bob Corker, who has played a key role in moving START forward, strongly suggested he would as well.

Corker did not rule out that some late surprise could make him vote against the treaty but "I don't know what that could be."

Corker said Republicans knew any attempt to amend the treaty would fail for lack of Democratic backing, and expressed muted but unmistakable annoyance at a warning from Russia that any changes to the accord would kill it.

"From the standpoint of consumption here in America that probably wasn't a great comment to have made," Corker said after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Interfax news agency the treaty "cannot be reopened."

The agreement -- which has the support of virtually every present and past 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 accord would also return US inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia's arsenal since the treaty's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.

In a direct rebuff to Republican criticisms, Mullen said in his letter that START would not cripple US missile defense plans, strengthens ties with Russia, and will hot harm the US nuclear deterrent.

Corker said that his reluctant Republican colleagues should "look at our military leaders that support this," citing "a-to-z" backing at the Pentagon for the treaty as evidence it is "in the best interest of our country."

Some Republicans, seeking a face-saving way to express concerns about the treaty without killing it, unveiled amendments to the US Senate's resolution of ratification -- which would not force new negotiations.

But others said they were committed "no votes" and accused Democrats of rushing the agreement through to hand Obama a major year-end diplomatic victory.

"No senator should be forced to make decisions like this so we can tick off another item on someone's political checklist before the end of the year," said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

© 2010 AFP

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