Obama, NATO press US Senate to pass START treaty

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President Barack Obama and NATO piled pressure Friday on the US Senate to ratify a new nuclear pact with Russia, as the alliance warned that any delay would damage European security.

Obama has urged lawmakers to sign off on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) this year, before a new Congress takes over next year after Republicans routed his Democratic party in mid-term elections.

Speaking after the first meeting of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Obama said that the treaty was a US "national security imperative."

"But just as it is a national security priority for the United States, the message that I've received since I arrived from my fellow leaders here at NATO could not be clearer: new START will strengthen our alliance and it will strengthen European security," he said.

Separately, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: "I would strongly regret if the ratification of the START treaty is delayed."

"A delay of the ratification of the START treaty would be damaging to security in Europe," he said. "I strongly encourage all parties involved to do their utmost to ensure an early ratification of the START treaty."

Failure to pass the deal would suggest that Obama is weakened politically after the mid-term polls cast doubt on his ability to pass major legislation and represent a personal humiliation in front of other world leaders.

The START treaty -- signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama 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.

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

But it appears far from clear that the treaty can garner 67 supporters in the 100-member Senate needed for a vote that would represent a much-needed foreign policy victory for the White House.

The task will be even tougher in January when a new Congress, elected in November 2 polls in which Republicans trounced Democrats, takes office.

In a further sign of trouble for the treaty, 10 Republican senators-elect called in a letter for the ratification to be delayed until next year.

The White House was stunned earlier this week when Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, considered the key stumbling block to passage of the treaty, said he doubted the pact could be brought up in the "lame duck" session this year.

Kyl said Tuesday he opposed a vote because of "complex and unresolved issues" about "modernisation" of the US nuclear arsenal -- ensuring that the US deterrent remains credible.

In response to Kyl's concerns, the White House weeks ago added 4.1 billion dollars over five years to its 10-year budget of 80 billion dollars for that purpose.

Other Republicans want assurances the pact will not hamper US missile defense plans, citing a unilateral statement from Moscow that moves on that front risked voiding the treaty.

© 2010 AFP

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