WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s drive to ratify the New START nuclear treaty with Russia by year’s end suffered a serious setback on Tuesday when a key Republican senator said there was not enough time this year to resolve remaining differences.
The statement by Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, prompted Vice President Joe Biden to warn that failure to pass the treaty this year would endanger national security by leaving the two countries blind to each others’ nuclear intentions.
Kyl, who has taken the Republican lead in negotiations with the administration over the treaty, issued a statement on Tuesday morning saying he did not believe the outgoing Congress had the time to finish its work on START because of other pressing business.
“When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization,” Kyl said.
His comments came as Democrats weighed whether to vote on the treaty in the final weeks of the “lame-duck” Congress or to wait for the new year, when passage may be more difficult because of Republican gains in the recent elections. Democrats will have a smaller majority in the Senate next year.
President Barack Obama has made ratification of the treaty one of his top priorities for the remaining weeks of this Congress. He reassured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday that he was committed to getting Senate approval for the accord by the end of the year.
Kyl’s statement prompted the administration to initiate a new round of consultations with him, according to Reid, followed by a statement from the vice president.
“Without ratification of this treaty, we will have no Americans on the ground to inspect Russia’s nuclear activities, no verification regime to track Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal ... and no verified nuclear reductions,” Biden said.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START agreement in April, committing the former Cold War foes to cut deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550, within seven years.
The treaty must be approved by the Senate and the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, before it will enter into force. Medvedev has made clear the Kremlin-controlled Duma should not ratify the treaty until Senate approval is certain.
Proponents of the treaty say while the reduction in nuclear warheads is important, the most significant element of the accord is that it creates a new monitoring regime to replace the one that expired with the end of the START I treaty last December.
Reporting by David Alexander, Ross Colvin, Andy Sullivan, Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan; Editing by Philip Barbara