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SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday the New START nuclear treaty was a centerpiece of improved U.S. ties with Russia and failure to ratify the accord could pose "real problems for the relationship."
"I think that there are potentially serious consequences for failure to ratify the New START agreement," Gates told reporters in Bolivia, where he was attending the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.
On the key sticking point of spending to modernize U.S. nuclear forces, Gates said he did not know what more the Republicans wanted because the Obama administration had agreed to the additions they had requested.
"I don't know what they're looking for frankly because we have essentially, in terms of the adds that they thought were needed, we have made those adds," he said.
President Barack Obama is headed toward a showdown with Senate Republicans over the START treaty and has made it one of his key legislative objectives for the final weeks of the current Congress, whose term expires in early January.
Democrats fear the treaty may face even greater hurdles when the new Congress takes office because their Senate majority will be considerably smaller after the losses they suffered in the November elections. Treaties require approval by two-thirds of the 100-member Senate.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new treaty in April, committing the two former Cold War foes to reducing deployed nuclear warheads by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550, within seven years.
Gates said Senate failure to ratify the agreement could have political consequences for the bilateral relationship, which has improved since Obama began trying to "reset" ties with Moscow after they soured during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Gates, a Republican who was Bush's defense secretary and was asked to stay on by Obama, noted the Russians had cooperated with the United States on developing the northern supply route for Afghanistan and the U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. Over the weekend, Moscow agreed to begin working with NATO on missile defenses.
"So some positive things have been happening in this relationship. If the START treaty isn't ratified, I think all of that is potentially at risk," Gates said.
"I'm not trying to scaremonger. I just think you have to be realistic that the New START treaty is a centerpiece of the relationship and for that not to be ratified, I think, poses real potential problems for the relationship."
One of the main Republican demands for supporting the treaty is ensuring funds are available to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons systems to make sure they work effectively.
The Obama administration has agreed to commit $80 billion over the next decade to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons. In negotiations with Republicans, the administration pledged to spend an additional $4.1 billion over five years.
Gates said failure to ratify START would jeopardize those funds.
"If there is no New START agreement, I think the additional funds that the administration has asked for modernizing our nuclear enterprise are very much at risk," he said.
Editing by Peter Cooney