Hillary Clinton pleads with Senate to back Russia arms treaty

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 11, 2010 12:22pm EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about the New START treaty while at the U.S. State Department in Washington, August 11, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about the New START treaty while at the U.S. State Department in Washington, August 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded with senators on Wednesday to back a new arms control treaty with Russia, saying a delay in ratification could hurt U.S. security and create dangerous uncertainty over broader nuclear control efforts.

Clinton said she was confident that reluctant Republicans would eventually swing behind the new START treaty when they vote in mid-September, saying the nuclear pact was too important to fall victim to U.S. election-year politics.

"Once the new START treaty is ratified and enters into force, it will advance our national security and provide stability and predictability between the world's two leading nuclear powers," Clinton said in a statement.

The new START treaty -- one of the central planks of the Obama administration's nuclear policy -- has run into choppy waters in the Senate, where only one Republican has come out in favor of ratification.

The treaty, which President Barack Obama signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, requires 67 votes to clear the Senate, meaning at least eight Republican votes will be needed for it to become law. Clinton is counting on Democratic support.

This month the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed a vote on ratification until the middle of September to give senators more time to study the document.

The treaty would cut the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the United States and Russia by about 30 percent. Clinton said this would not limit U.S. efforts to modernize its own nuclear force and maintain a secure nuclear deterrent for U.S. allies, friends and partners.

Ratification will also allow the United States to resume on-site inspections of Russia's nuclear arsenal which have been suspended for more than eight months following the lapse of the earlier START agreement between the two sides.

"This is a critical point. Opposing ratification means opposing the inspections that provide us a vital window into Russia's arsenal," Clinton said.

"As time passes, uncertainty will increase. With uncertainty comes unpredictability, which when you're dealing with nuclear weapons is absolutely a problem that must be addressed."

Russia on Saturday accused the United States of breaching its obligations on weapons proliferation, a sign of strained ties between the two former Cold War foes despite their efforts to "reset" relations.

BIPARTISAN APPEAL

Clinton stressed the bipartisan legacy of U.S. arms control efforts stretching back to Republican President Ronald Reagan, and underscored Obama administration plans to spend more than $80 billion over the next decade to modernize and improve the U.S. nuclear capabilities.

Her words were clearly aimed at Republicans in the Senate, among whom only Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana has publicly said he will support the treaty.

Republican criticism has increased as partisan rhetoric heats up ahead of the November 2 congressional elections, where Obama's fellow Democrats are braced for potentially big losses among voters frustrated by the halting pace of the U.S. economic recovery.

Senator Jon Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate, said he would seek at up to $10 billion more to modernize the U.S. nuclear force -- a demand which could be difficult to meet by the end of the year.

Clinton said that despite this, the administration had indications that the treaty would ultimately win "much more bipartisan support" as senators ponder the alternatives.

"I believe that this treaty is too important and it will merit the most thoughtful and substantive response from members of the Senate. It should not be in any way caught up in election year politics," she said.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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