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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A second Republican bid to amend President Barack Obama's strategic nuclear arms treaty with Russia failed during debate in the Senate on Sunday and top Democrats expressed confidence they would have the votes to approve the accord.
But growing Republican anger over the amount of business Democrats have crammed into the final weeks of the current legislative session further eroded support for the treaty. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham both said on Sunday they would vote against the pact.
Graham, who joined Democrats in voting to bring the treaty to a debate in the Senate, told CBS's "Face the Nation" program "I'm not going to vote for START" in the current legislative session that ends in early January. He had been considered a potential supporter of the accord.
"If you really want to have a chance of passing START, you'd better start over and do it in the next Congress because this lame-duck has been poisoned," Graham said, referring to the legislative session that followed the November congressional elections.
Democrats have been pushing to pass the treaty before the new Congress takes office because their Senate majority was reduced from 58-42 to 53-47. The treaty could also face weeks of delay as more than a dozen new lawmakers get up to speed on the issue.
The treaty needs 67 votes for approval in the 100-member Senate. It moved to the Senate floor for debate with a two-thirds majority that included Graham. The senator's decision to vote against it raised questions about whether Democrats could ultimately muster the votes for passage.
But Vice President Joe Biden and other top Democrats expressed confidence they would ultimately have the votes to approve the pact.
The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would require the former Cold War adversaries to cut deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 each within seven years.
It also would reduce the number of deployed strategic missiles and bombers to 700 for each side and establish a verification and inspection system to ensure they abide by terms of the agreement.
Debate on the treaty was expected to continue at least through Tuesday, with Republicans planning to seek additional changes to both the treaty and the accompanying resolution of ratification.
Republican Senators concerned about the large disparity in tactical, short-range nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States rallied behind a treaty-killing amendment on Sunday that would have inserted a reference to the issue in the preamble of the accord. The amendment was defeated 60-32.
Democratic Senator Robert Casey said members of both parties were concerned about Russian tactical nuclear weapons but there was a simple reason the New START nuclear treaty did not address them -- because it is an agreement dealing with strategic, or long-range, atomic arms.
Russia is believed to have about 2,000 deployed tactical nuclear weapons, versus 500 for the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists. U.S. lawmakers fear the weapons are less securely stored and could fall into the hands of extremist groups.
They also fear the Russians are more likely to use them.
"To the Russians, tactical nuclear weapons are a battlefield weapon just like artillery," said Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who has been a critic of the START agreement. "Their military doctrine is to actually use those weapons."
Kyl said U.S. negotiators should have used Russian interest in a new treaty on strategic weapons as leverage to get them to commit to talks on shorter-range nuclear arms.
"I don't know whether it was because of a lack of direction from the commander-in-chief or poor negotiation, but one way or another we got snookered," Kyl said. "We got snookered on missile defense. ... We got snookered on tactical nuclear weapons. We got snookered on verification."
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee led the floor debate, said passage of START was a prerequisite for beginning talks on tactical nuclear weapons.
"If we don't pass the START treaty, if we can't reach a bilateral agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons, there will be no discussion about tactical weapons," Kerry said. "That's as plain as day."
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, John Crawley and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh