US lawmakers move on taxes, Russia treaty

16th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

US President Barack Obama hoped for twin restorative political wins Thursday as lawmakers forged ahead with a landmark nuclear treaty with Russia and his contentious tax compromise with Republicans.

The deeply divided House of Representatives was to vote on Obama's deal to avert a massive New Year's tax hike after Democrats try to toughen its inheritance tax provisions -- a step Republicans warn would scuttle the deal.

Obama won a 13-month extension of jobless benefits and a two-year extension of middle-class tax cuts due to expire January 1 at the cost of also extending rate reductions for the richest US earners and rolling back the estate tax.

The White House has argued the plan will boost US growth and help bring down stubbornly high unemployment now near 10 percent, while Democrats on the party's left flank have assailed what they view as a giveaway to the rich.

Obama has urged lawmakers to defeat an amendment to toughen the inheritance tax, and approve the overall package, sending him the legislation to sign with ample time before tax rates rise on most American families come January 1.

At the same time, the polarized Senate formally dove into a bitter debate on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), with Republicans dead-set on killing the accord or at least putting off a final vote until next year.

The White House's foes will formally take control of the House when a new US Congress convenes in January and see their numbers swell in the Senate as a consequence of their November 2 rout of Democrats.

Obama won a critical victory when lawmakers voted 66-32 Wednesday to take up the pact despite fierce Republican charges -- flatly denied by the Pentagon -- that it will cripple US missile defense plans.

That margin put Democrats within striking distance of the 67 votes needed to ratify START, and one of two lawmakers absent, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, has pledged to back the agreement, energizing the treaty's top champions.

The effort gets more complicated some January, when Senate Democrats see their numbers shrink to 53 and they need to get 14 Republicans -- up from nine -- in order to approve the treaty.

"We believe we should stay here as long as it takes to get this treaty ratified, and we are prepared to do so. There's no legitimate reason not to finish," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry, a Democrat.

Obama's defeated 2008 Republican White House rival, John McCain, also voted in favor of moving ahead, despite past criticisms that the president has "overhyped" the beneficialy effect it will have on ties with Moscow.

But number-two Senate Republican Jon Kyl, the party's point-man on the treaty, has argued that there is not enough time to address his concerns about the treaty, and rallied his forces to defeat the accord.

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 accord would also return US inspectors who have been unable to monitor Russia's arsenal since the treaty's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.

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

US lawmakers face other bitter battles before breaking for the Christmas holiday, including a feud over a catch-all government spending bill for the fiscal year than began October 1.

© 2010 AFP

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