U.S. hopes nuclear arms pact to be ratified this year

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 29, 2010 3:48pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration hopes to win Senate ratification of a major new nuclear arms deal with Russia by the end of this year, a senior State Department official said on Monday.

Ratification may be difficult and time-consuming in the Senate, due to opposition Republican concerns about the U.S. nuclear arsenal being kept up-to-date and hard feelings over the passage of President Barack Obama's healthcare plan.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed last week to the replacement of the Cold War-era START pact. The deal would slash their countries' nuclear arsenals by a third, and they are due to sign it on April 8 in Prague.

Work must still be finished on the technical annexes to the treaty that lay out details of inspection and verification regimes, Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. under secretary of state for arms control, told reporters at the State Department.

She said officials hoped to finish those annexes by the end of April and then submit the full package to the Senate, where a vote of two-thirds is required for ratification.

"Our goal is to submit the treaty in the late spring and to seek ratification by the end of the year," Tauscher said.

Tauscher insisted the new treaty placed no limits on U.S. missile defense systems, despite Russian suggestions last week that either side had the right to pull out of the offensive nuclear arms agreement if the other beefs up missile defenses.

The parties could make unilateral statements about treaties or decide to abrogate them, as the United States did in 2001 with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that limited defensive systems against nuclear missiles, she added.

But the new START treaty is about offensive nuclear weapons, and "nothing that we have done or said leaves anybody to believe that missile defense is either frozen or will be constrained," Tauscher said.

The April 8 meeting will be close to the anniversary of an Obama speech in Prague that offered his vision for eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and it should help build momentum for a nuclear security summit he will host in Washington on April 12-13.

Some Senate Republicans say they will not consider the START follow-on deal until the administration provides a modernization plan for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could be included in the Obama administration's upcoming nuclear policy review.

Tauscher said that document, known as the "Nuclear Posture Review," would be released around the same time as the mid-April nuclear security summit with other countries.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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