Analysis: Obama's uphill drive on START treaty

WASHINGTON Mon Nov 22, 2010 4:41pm EST

President Barack Obama (3rd L) hosts a meeting to discuss the importance of the passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, November 18, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Barack Obama (3rd L) hosts a meeting to discuss the importance of the passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, November 18, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's uphill drive to gain Senate ratification this year of a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty is running afoul of Republican opposition that may be a dress rehearsal of gridlock to come.

Obama's backing for the START treaty is wide and deep: three Republican former secretaries of state as well as Democrats who held the job, NATO leaders, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and various other representatives from the U.S. national security community all support it.

The new agreement commits the United States and Russia to cutting deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550, within seven years. It also includes verification measures.

Advocates warn that failure to gain ratification of the treaty could have many consequences. U.S. verification of Russia's nuclear arsenal tops the list, but advocates also believe U.S.-Russian relations could suffer, including cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

"Our security and our position in the world are at stake," Obama said on Saturday.

Or, as political expert Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said: "It's clear that the repercussions of failure in this case go way beyond arms control."

Leading the Republican opposition is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who said last week he did not think there was enough time left this year to put the treaty to a Senate vote before the U.S. Congress adjourns for the year in December.

Kyl has argued that the scope of the treaty and its potential impact on U.S. security deserve a full airing in the Senate and he does not want to rush things through.

Most other Republicans have deferred to Kyl on the subject, leaving him the powerbroker. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both spoke to him last week to try to allay his concerns.

The White House has pledged $85 billion over 10 years for nuclear modernization and taken other steps to try to meet Kyl's demands, but so far Kyl has not budged.

Officials need as many votes as they can get because international treaties require a large hurdle for approval -- two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 of the 100 senators.

PREVIEW OF NEXT YEAR?

Political experts believe Kyl's opposition may be simply a political judgment to oppose Obama and could reflect a strategy that will play out next year as emboldened Republicans assume more authority in the wake of big victories in November 2 congressional elections.

"It seems to me that this is a dress rehearsal for how the Republicans are going to deal with Obama next year," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The elections left Obama in a weakened political position. He meets Republican congressional leaders next week to see where the two sides might find common ground next year amid simmering debates on taxes and spending.

Obama administration officials said they believe Kyl is dealing with them in good faith. The said even if in the end he refuses to vote for the treaty, they hope enough of the 15 Republican senators who they could sway their way will be convinced to back the pact.

"We take his concerns at face value and hope that in return he recognizes that we're dealing in good faith," one official said.

Republicans point out that Obama has had all year to push the treaty and that it could fall victim of an end-of-the-year crunch.

Other big issues are dominating the agenda, such as extending the Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment insurance, approving government spending and dealing with gays in the military.

"There's a very limited time to do it all," said a Republican congressional aide.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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