Obama battles to save landmark treaty with Russia

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President Barack Obama's hopes to win US Senate approval of a landmark arms control treaty with Russia this year faded abruptly Tuesday, hampering his embattled quest to improve ties with Moscow.

The White House's Republican foes threatened to block any effort to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in the year-end "lame duck" session, drawing a sharp warning from US Vice President Joe Biden.

"Failure to pass the New START Treaty this year would endanger our national security," said Biden, who stressed "the time to act is now and we will continue to seek its approval by the Senate before the end of the year."

The agreement "is a fundamental part of our relationship with Russia, which has been critical to our ability to supply our troops in Afghanistan and to impose and enforce strong sanctions on the Iranian government," he said.

The blow to one of Obama's top foreign policy priorities came when number-two Senate Republican Jon Kyl, his party's point man on the treaty, said he doubted he could green light a ratification vote by year's end.

Senate ratification requires 67 votes out of 100 -- a difficult enough task for the White House before November 2 elections bumped Republicans up to 47 seats from the 41 they will hold until the new Congress convenes in January.

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 barred from Russia's arsenal since the agreement's predecessor lapsed in December 2009.

But Republicans have said they need to be sure that the US nuclear arsenal will be modernized to remain a credible deterrent and that the treaty will not hamper US missile defense efforts, opposed by Moscow.

Kyl said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had telephoned him Monday to ask whether Republican concerns about the treaty had diminished enough to take it up before a new Congress takes office in January.

"I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization" of the US nuclear arsenal, Kyl said in a statement.

Top Obama aides and the White House's Democratic allies protested that they had addressed Republican concerns about the accord and planned to keep pushing for a ratification vote before next year.

Biden underlined that the administration had committed to investing 80 billion dollars over the next ten years on modernization and agreed after talks with Kyl to spend another 4.1 billion over five years.

"We've answered all of their questions," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Biden were expected head to the Capitol on Wednesday to make the case for ratification, according to congressional aides.

And US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told AFP he favored ratification "the sooner the better" and stressed "we're better off with it" from an intelligence perspective.

But Republican Senator Bob Corker, one of several who said a lame-duck vote was unlikely, held out hopes for "overwhelming" approval come January and said that the elections were a factor in pushing for a delay.

"It'd be different if the balance was pretty much the same, and all that, (if) there wasn't such a big change in the numbers of people here," he told AFP. "I don't think it's going to happen."

Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had spoken to Kyl and did not believe "the door is closed" to a lame-duck vote.

"Our relationship with Russia is at stake, we don't have any inspectors on the ground in Russia today," he said. "We have to keep walking ahead here, steadily, and that's what I intend to do."

© 2010 AFP

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