Q+A: START's moment of truth approaches in Senate

WASHINGTON Mon Dec 20, 2010 3:41pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on Tuesday to end debate over the New START treaty with Russia and move to a final vote on the arms control treaty to limit both countries' nuclear warhead stockpiles.

Senate Democrats appear optimistic about passing the treaty that President Barack Obama has made a priority before Congress ends its business for the year. But Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, want more time to debate and hope to delay consideration into next year.

Following are some questions and answers about what to expect as the two sides their legislative forces:

WHAT IS MOST LIKELY TO HAPPEN?

Analysts believe the Democratic majority will muster the 67 votes needed to meet the constitutional requirement that treaties be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. A vote could come as late as Thursday.

Once approved by the Senate, the treaty would move on to Obama for ratification. Russia's parliament, which has been waiting for the Senate to act, would then take up the issue and likely approve. The agreement would then require final signatures form both sides.

WHAT IF DEMOCRATS DON'T GET THE VOTES NEEDED?

Two things could occur.

Democrats could avoid a vote altogether by pulling the treaty and reviving the issue next year when they may have a better chance of addressing Republican calls for a longer debate.

Or they could push ahead with a vote and risk seeing the agreement voted down, an unlikely outcome that would have implications for the future of U.S. treaty negotiations with Russia and other countries.

IF DELAYED, WHAT RECEPTION MIGHT THE TREATY GET NEXT YEAR

Democrats will have a diminished Senate majority beginning in January following Republican gains in the 100-seat chamber in last month's elections. The treaty will need 14 Republican supporters to pass, instead of the nine now needed.

A final vote would also be delayed for weeks, if not months, as more than a dozen new senators try to get up to speed on the issue and its complexities. As Democrats have noted, 60 senators in the current Congress have been involved in treaty briefings or hearings over the past year and a half.

MIGHT DEMOCRATS ALLOW THE TREATY TO BE DEFEATED THIS YEAR?

Possibly. Some Democratic leaders have indicated that they would rather try for passage and suffer defeat in the current Senate than simply postpone the question until next year.

WHAT IF THE SENATE AMENDED THE TREATY?

Amending the treaty would force negotiators from both sides to reopen the agreement and renegotiate it.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in an interview with Interfax on Monday that changing the treaty would effectively kill it.

"I can only underscore that the Strategic Nuclear Arms Treaty, worked out on the strict basis of parity, in our view fully answers to the national interests of Russia and the United States," Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying.

"It cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations."

WHY DOES OBAMA WANT NEW START PASSED NOW?

The treaty is a centerpiece of Obama's effort to reset relations with Russia. In recent months Moscow has become more cooperative on issues critical to U.S. security.

Russia supported U.N. efforts to increase pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. It has also enabled NATO to create an alternative northern route to resupply troops in Afghanistan.

Failure to ratify the treaty could cause that cooperation to unravel.

Obama also has a long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. The New START treaty is seen as a foundation for moving ahead with that goal, possibly by seeking a treaty to reduce tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons that are held in storage. START deals only with deployed weapons.

(Editing by David Storey)

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