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Obama, Republicans head towards START showdown
LISBON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama moved closer on Friday to a showdown with Republicans in Congress who have rebuffed his calls for the Senate to approve a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia by the end of the year.
Obama warned that failure to ratify the treaty would put at risk warming ties with Russia, which has helped impose tougher sanctions on Iran and allowed equipment destined for NATO forces in Afghanistan through its territory.
Speaking during a NATO summit, he showed no sign of backing down from his demand that the Senate move speedily to approve the treaty, despite Republicans saying they do not think there is enough time this year to resolve outstanding differences.
Obama has put the START treaty at the top of his foreign policy agenda, saying it is central to his efforts to "reset" U.S. relations with Russia and ensure there is proper monitoring of the former Cold War enemy's nuclear arsenal.
"This is a national security imperative of the United States," Obama said.
"We know that failure to ratify and move forward with new START will put at risk the substantial progress that has been made in advancing our nuclear security and our partnership with Russia on behalf of nuclear security."
Obama's statement appeared designed to keep up pressure on Republicans who have refused to endorse the treaty.
The new START agreement commits the United States and Russia to cutting deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent -- to no more than 1,550 -- in seven years. It also includes verification measures.
Obama won support from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said he would regret any delay to ratification of the treaty, which would "be damaging to security in Europe."
The White House has dismissed suggestions that the issue has become a test of Obama's presidency.
The Democratic president has suffered a number of domestic and foreign policy setbacks in recent weeks, including his party's loss of the U.S. House of Representatives in congressional elections.
OBAMA, MEDVEDEV TO MEET ON SATURDAY
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, dismissed the idea that Obama's struggle to get the pact past emboldened Republicans reflected badly on the president's credibility in NATO and internationally.
"We're going to continue to work with Republican senators as well as Democratic senators to get the START treaty passed this year," he told reporters.
Obama has assigned Vice President Joe Biden to try to enlist senators' support for the treaty. Ratifying it will require 67 votes in the 100-member Senate.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new arms agreement in April to replace the previous START accord, which expired last December.
The White House wants the Senate to bring the deal to a vote during the final weeks of the current Congress. If it is held over until next year, the Democrats' slimmed down majority in the Senate would make passage more difficult.
One obstacle is Senator Jon Kyl, the Republicans' point man on the treaty, who says more money should be spent to make sure existing U.S. nuclear stockpiles are well maintained.
The administration had moved to address Kyl's concerns about nuclear modernization by saying it will invest $84 billion over the next decade to upgrade U.S. nuclear forces.
The treaty must be approved by the Senate and the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, before it goes into force. Medvedev has urged the Duma not to ratify it until U.S. Senate approval is certain.
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