Mullen prods Senate to act quickly on START treaty

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The military’s top uniformed officer pressed the Senate Friday to quickly ratify the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, saying the inspection regime of the earlier pact expired nearly a year ago and was critical to move forward.

“I believe, and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes, that this treaty is essential to our future security,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group at Stanford University in California. “I hope the Senate will ratify it quickly.”

Mullen’s remarks came as Democratic leaders weigh whether to bring the accord to a full Senate vote in the next few weeks or wait until the new year when passage may be more difficult because of Republican gains in the recent congressional elections.

“I really think it’s critical that we move forward,” Mullen said, noting the previous accord along with its verification and inspection regime expired last year. “In December it will be one year without any way to verify.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new agreement in April, committing the former Cold War foes to cut deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent.

Proponents of the treaty say while the reduction in nuclear warheads is important, the most significant element is the creation of a new monitoring regime.

Obama has said he hopes the Senate will act on the treaty during the final weeks of the current Congress -- the so-called lame-duck session beginning Monday. But Republicans, who have the votes to block it, may not permit ratification.

Senator Jon Kyl has taken the Republican lead on the treaty. Senate aides say his willingness to support the accord is contingent upon ensuring funding is available for modernizing U.S. nuclear forces. Mullen said some $80 billion was available for that purpose over the next decade.

White House officials reportedly have been talking to Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, about how to move the treaty forward. Senate aides said they expected decisions this week on whether it would be on the agenda in the lame-duck session.

With time to pass the treaty before the new year slipping away, officials on either side of the issue ramped up pressure to try to influence the decision on whether to schedule a vote.

A group of former Republican senators urged Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell not to schedule the vote until the new Congress takes office in January, saying a major strategic arms treaty had never before been approved in a lame-duck session.

Ellen Tauscher, the under secretary of state who led the U.S. side negotiating the new START deal, pressed for passage in a speech earlier this week, saying objections were “a lot of red herrings.”

Mullen said he though the most significant argument against the treaty was the concern it would keep the United States from moving ahead with plans to build a missile defense system.

“There is nothing that I see in any way, shape or form which jeopardizes our ability to develop missile defense capabilities,” he told the Stanford audience. “We haven’t slowed one bit since we were engaged in this treaty.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan