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Senate set to begin debate on nuclear arms treaty

Majority Leader Harry Reid thinks the votes are there to pass the accord with Russia. But some GOP senators have reservations.

December 15, 2010|By Paul Richter, Washington Bureau
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that the New START treaty with Russia had enough votes for Senate ratification; others disagreed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that the New START treaty with… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — The Senate is expected to debate a proposed nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia as early as Wednesday, despite continuing Republican objections that there is too little time this year to properly evaluate the controversial measure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday ordered debate to begin as soon as the Senate finishes the proposed tax-cut package, and predicted that advocates had the 67 votes needed for ratification.

But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has fought to delay consideration of the treaty until next year, when Republicans will have more Senate seats, contended that Reid "perhaps predicted something prematurely."

Ratifying the measure would be arguably President Obama's most tangible foreign policy accomplishment, and would strengthen relations with Russia.

In recent weeks, amid an energetic promotional campaign from the White House, a handful of Senate Republicans have appeared more willing to vote. But some Republican senators' views remain murky, and opponents may be able to turn to Senate rules to delay a vote.

"This is still a jump ball," said John D. Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group.

Next year, with six more Republicans in the Senate, it will presumably be tougher to ratify the treaty, which requires a two-thirds vote.

Maine Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins have announced their support for a vote this year. Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) also appear open to it.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) joined Kyl on Tuesday, saying he thought there was not adequate time. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has expressed the same view.

Reid intends to consider both New START and a stopgap funding measure, a process called dual tracking that could complicate deliberations, some observers said. In addition, proposed amendments could slow the process and change some senators' willingness to support the treaty.

Stephen Rademaker, a nonproliferation official in the George W. Bush administration and a former Senate aide, said he thought the vote count was "probably close — it could depend on what happens with amendments."

The treaty would reduce the ceiling on each nation's long-range active warheads by up to 30% and provide procedures for each country to monitor the other's nuclear arsenal. It has wide support from senior military officials and former State Department and Defense Department secretaries of both parties.

Critics such as Kyl have pushed to add more money for upkeep of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and have argued that the treaty could limit U.S. flexibility to expand its missile defense capabilities. The administration has responded that it places no restrictions on missile defense.

Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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