WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama ramped up his push on Thursday for the Senate to pass a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia, calling it a national security imperative that the pact be ratified this year.
Obama held a high-profile meeting with former Republican and Democratic secretaries of state at the White House to bolster his case for ratification in the Senate, where some Republican senators are expressing doubts about it.
The new agreement commits the United States and Russia to cutting deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550, within seven years. It also includes verification measures.
“The stakes for American national security are clear and they are high,” Obama told reporters at the White House, sitting with former Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at his side.
He assigned Vice President Joe Biden to work “day and night” to enlist support for the treaty with the aim of gaining Senate ratification by the time Congress ends its work for the year in December.
“I’m confident that we should be able to get the votes. Keep in mind that every president since Ronald Reagan has presented a arms treaty with Russia and been able to get ratification,” Obama said.
Biden’s goal is to try to gain the backing of eight out of 15 Republican senators who might be willing to vote for it. Ratifying the treaty will require 67 votes in the 100-member Senate.
KYL HAS KEY ROLE
A key obstacle is Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who has insisted the Obama administration spend more money to make sure existing U.S. stockpiles are well maintained. Administration officials are scrambling to answer his concerns.
The fear is that if the treaty does not get ratified this year and is held over until next year, a larger contingent of Republicans in the Senate could make it even more difficult to gain passage.
Obama said the treaty was a cornerstone of U.S. relations with Russia, noting that Moscow had been “fundamental” in helping to put strong sanctions in place against Iran to deal with its nuclear program.
“We cannot afford to gamble on our ability to verify Russia’s strategic nuclear arms and we can’t jeopardize the progress that we’ve made in securing vulnerable nuclear materials or in maintaining a strong sanctions regime against Iran,” Obama said.
The White House wants the Senate to bring the deal to a vote during the final weeks of the current Congress -- the so-called “lame-duck” session.
Democrats are concerned the treaty may face more difficulty in the new year because their Senate majority will be smaller after Republican wins in November’s congressional elections. Kyl, a key figure in treaty talks with the White House, said this week he did not think there was enough time to consider the subject this year.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty in April to replace the previous START accord, which expired last December.
“As Ronald Reagan said, we have to trust, but we also have to verify. In order for us to verify, we’ve got to have a treaty,” Obama said.
“This is not a Democratic concept; this is not a Republican concept. This is a concept of American national security that has been promoted by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now my administration.”
The meeting included Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, James Baker, and Kissinger as well as Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman
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