Barack Obama

Senate approval of START presents challenges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Getting an agreement on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia has not been easy for the Obama administration. Getting it through the U.S. Senate may be just as hard.

The tortuous negotiations between the White House and Moscow are over as a deal was sealed on Friday on a landmark treaty to slash their nuclear arsenals by a third, and now the political horse-trading with Republicans begins.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, whose Foreign Relations Committee will consider the treaty, said on Friday he wanted the Senate to ratify the agreement this year that replaces the Cold War-era START pact.

But the U.S. political climate hardly seems conducive. Some Republicans have declared that the bitter and drawn-out healthcare reform debate has “poisoned the well” and Obama will be hard-pressed to win them over on other issues.

The numbers involved in ratifying a treaty are daunting as two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes out of the 100-seat chamber, are needed. Obama’s Democrats and independents who tend to vote with them number only 59, so Republican help will be essential.

Then there are concerns Republicans have raised about what Washington is getting out of such a treaty, and whether Obama will keep the nuclear arsenal up-to-date while cutting it.

Some Republicans have warned Obama that they will not consider the START follow-on until the administration provides a modernization plan for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, required by recent legislation.

None of this means ratification won’t happen, but it could take a while, possibly beyond the November congressional elections in which the Republicans are expected to pick up seats.

“Given the bruising partisan fracas over healthcare reform, Republicans can be expected to demand several pounds of nuclear and missile defense modernization flesh in exchange for their approval of START,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.


Administration officials say they are ready for the challenge.

“We are focused on ratification. We’re working hard. We’re going to engage deeply and broadly with all of the members of the Senate,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as the agreement with Moscow was announced.

“I think that national security has always produced large bipartisan majorities. And I see no reason why this should be any different,” she said.

The White House said the new treaty will not place constraints on U.S. missile defense programs, which had been a sticking point in negotiations because of Russia’s opposition to such plans.

Senate Republicans who opposed any limits on missile defense will be looking at the fine print. They will also be watching what the Russians say on missile defense.

“Republicans who want to undermine the administration’s case will probe the negotiating record for hidden commitments. In exchange for their votes some will try to exact pledges to accelerate defensive programs,” Stephen Sestanovich, a Russian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this week.

It’s unclear when the treaty will be sent to the Senate. First technical annexes must be finalized, a process that has taken months with some agreements.

Getting it through the Senate can take months too. Sokolski said even the Senate approval of the largely uncontroversial Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, agreed by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, took five months.

Arms control advocates say the treaty will be approved. They believe it helps that Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on Kerry’s committee, favors ratification.

“Verifiable reductions in bloated nuclear stockpiles are prudent and long overdue. New START is clearly in the U.S. national security interest and I believe it will gain well over the two-thirds majority needed for ratification,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Editing by Vicki Allen