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U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty on shaky ground

The proposed arms reduction accord had appeared headed for swift approval in the Senate, but skeptical Republicans now want more time for debate.

July 24, 2010|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration's arms reduction treaty with Russia, which for months seemed headed for swift approval in the Senate, is suddenly facing delays that some supporters fear could threaten its survival.

With skeptical Senate Republicans demanding more information and more time for debate, the New START treaty may not be approved until after the midterm elections in November. It could even slide into next year and a new Congress — which may include more Senate Republicans hostile to it.

A failure to pass the treaty, which would lower the maximum number of long-distance warheads deployed by each of the former Cold War foes to 1,550 from 2,200, would be a major blow to President Obama's efforts to improve relations with Russia and would also dim the outlook for a series of other arms accords.

The White House and its Senate allies, including John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), have worked hard to move the pact through the Senate. They lined up supportive testimony from an all-star cast of statesmen of both parties, including former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Defense Secretary William Perry.

But objections have bubbled up from some Republican senators, including Arizona's Jon Kyl and John McCain, who have said they will not support the proposed pact until their concerns are addressed.

Though Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the agreement in April, only one Republican senator, Richard Lugar of Indiana, has publicly committed to vote for it.

Administration officials and Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have been involved in quiet negotiations in hopes of reaching a bipartisan agreement.

But even if White House officials remain optimistic about those talks, some Senate aides say the administration and its allies are likely to fail in their efforts to get the treaty out of the chamber before its August recess in two weeks.

Critics have three general concerns. They fear the treaty would limit the U.S. ability to build a long-range missile-defense system, a charge proponents say is baseless.

They also are concerned that the administration may not be spending enough money to properly maintain the nation's sprawling nuclear weapons arsenal, despite its nonbinding pledge to spend $100 billion over the next 10 years.

And they worry that the treaty's provisions for verifying what is in Russia's nuclear arsenal may not give the United States all the information it needs.

Kyl, who has taken the lead for the Republicans on the issue, says that although he's skeptical that shrinking the arsenals will make Americans safer, he might back the deal in the end.

"I might be able to support a new treaty if it addresses various concerns, including verification and the modernization of our nuclear stockpile," Kyl said on his Senate website.

But some nervous supporters worry that the Republicans are simply trying to delay approval until next year, when the GOP may have a much stronger hand in the Senate.

The administration needs 67 Senate votes for approval, meaning it needs to add eight Republicans to its 59 votes. But if the Democrats lose a handful of senators this fall, a ratification resolution could become more daunting.

"The cynical interpretation is that the Republicans are just trying to delay this thing until after the election so they have more leverage," said Tom Collina of the Arms Control Assn., which supports the treaty.

Collina said it wasn't clear whether there would be a postelection "lame duck" session of Congress. Such a session can be convened only if both parties want it, and if the Republicans gain a large number of seats, they may decide they're better off waiting until the new year to conduct business, he said.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said he believes the Senate will vote by the end of the year.

"The hope is that their concerns can be adequately addressed and we can deal with it quickly," he said, adding, "But Republicans are not making it easy for us to do much of anything right now."

paul.richter@latimes.com

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