US Senate to open START debate
President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in the US Senate said Tuesday they would kick off formal debate on a landmark nuclear arms control pact with Russia and predicted its ratification this year.
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 two months after an elections rout.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he could bring up START late in the day or on Wednesday despite stiff objections from Republicans who say there is not enough time for a full debate.
Asked whether the accord would net the 67 votes needed for ratification and whether he would bring the agreement to a vote this year, as Obama has requested, Reid replied: "Yes. The answer is yes on both."
Obama's Democratic allies currently control 58 Senate seats, and need nine of the 42 Republicans to reach the 67 votes needed for approval -- but that number rises to 14 when a new Congress arrives in January.
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.
"I believe we can pass the START treaty if we get a chance to (vote), the key is to get it going," Democratic Senator John Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and the accord's lead champion, told reporters.
"It's on the agenda, we want to get it done but the key is sort of when we wrap up what," Kerry said, citing ongoing battles over tax cuts, government spending bills, and other matters with the 2010 legislative clock ticking.
Just three Republicans have publicly said they will back the treaty, but others have broadly signalled that they will support the accord as long as Democrats allow suitable time for debate.
The Republican point-man on the treaty, Senator Jon Kyl, has publicly said that he has not yet made up his mind, but his office has bombarded journalists with news articles critical of the accord and opinion pieces urging its defeat.
While Republicans were highly unlikely to muster the 51 votes needed to amend the treaty -- effectively killing it by forcing new talks with Moscow -- a source said they planned a series of politically difficult amendment votes.
Two Republican sources said they would try to strike language in the accord's non-binding preamble that declares there is a relationship between offensive nuclear weapons and missile defenses.
Republicans have charged that the accord may handcuff US missile defense plans fiercely opposed by Russia, though the Pentagon and arms experts of both parties have flatly denied any such impact.
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 maintence.
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