New START nuclear treaty faces key US Senate test

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Amid stiff opposition from President Barack Obama's Republican foes, a landmark US-Russia nuclear arms control treaty faces a key US Senate test vote Thursday on the road to ratification.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, controlled by Obama's Democratic allies, will take up the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) at 9:30 am (1330 GMT) and will send it to the full Senate for final approval.

But all eyes will be on the panel's Republicans: 67 votes are needed for ratification, Democrats control just 59 seats, and only two of the chamber's 41 Republicans have openly pledged their support for the accord to date.

The treaty -- signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama at an elaborate ceremony in Prague in April -- restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002.

Senate Republicans say they worry the accord could hamper US missile defense plans -- a charge flatly denied by the Pentagon -- have concerns about Russian implementation, and want assurances about plans to modernize the existing US nuclear arsenal.

But they also aim to deny Obama what would be a major diplomatic victory ahead of November 2 mid-term elections that will decide control of the US Congress.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, the committee chairman, agreed this week that bringing the accord to a final ratification vote before the elections "would be a mistake" and said it should be done when lawmakers return late this year.

"Let's just get it out of the committee and hopefully set it up to do without any politics, without any election atmospherics, as a matter of national security when we come back," the Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday.

And the top Republican on Kerry's committee, Senator Richard Lugar, worked over a six-week August break to craft a resolution addressing the party's main concerns, ultimately winning support for the treaty from Republican Bob Corker.

"If Senator Lugar's resolution is adopted in its entirety on Thursday and is not weakened through amendments, I will vote it out of committee," Corker said Wednesday.

Of the committee's six other Republicans, none reached by AFP on Wednesday would agree to disclose how they would vote, though two -- Jim DeMint and James Inhofe -- were expected to oppose the treaty.

Leaving little to chance, Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates with wooing wary lawmakers over the August break, according to Kerry.

And the senator warned colleagues reluctant to back the treaty that Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, was watching how US lawmakers handle ratification of the accord.

"The Duma is waiting. (Russian) President (Dmitry) Medvedev said this to me personally, that they're waiting to see what happens here and how the treaty is treated in the United States," said Kerry. "We have to be sensitive to that."

And senior US diplomat Rose Gottemoeller, who helped negotiate the accord, warned Tuesday that ties with Russia could suffer "some penalties," with Moscow possibly refusing to back Washington's hardline policy on Iran.

She also warned that allowing the START deal to collapse would mean the United States would no longer be able to closely monitor Russia's nuclear weaponry, as the new treaty allows for intrusive inspections.

"I think primarily we lose our eyes and ears inside the Russian federation," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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