WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama reassured lawmakers on Saturday that he was committed to building U.S. missile defenses despite wording in a new strategic nuclear treaty with Russia that Republicans fear could limit U.S. options.
Republicans debating the New START treaty in the Senate have expressed concern the pact would limit U.S. efforts to develop systems like those it plans to deploy in Europe to defend against limited missile attacks from Iran or North Korea.
“The New START Treaty places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs,” Obama wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The White House released the letter as Republican senators were debating an amendment that could have killed the START treaty by removing language in the preamble recognizing the “interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.” The amendment was ultimately defeated 59-37.
The letter could encourage Republican support for the treaty. Republican lawmakers had been pressing Obama to make a clear statement that the pact would not hinder development of U.S. missile defenses, and several Republican senators praised his comments.
“As long as I am president, and as long as Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces and our allies and partners,” Obama said.
Republican senators, led by John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent for the presidency, said Russians could use the language to withdraw from the treaty if the United States continued to develop the size and quality of its missile defenses.
“This treaty sets a terrible precedent,” said Senator John Barrasso, another sponsor of the amendment. “The United States should not be placing any constraints, any constraints on our ability to defend ourselves.”
“Why is there a limitation at all on missile defense in a treaty that is meant to deal with nuclear weapons? Why did we concede to the Russians on this important point?” asked Senator John Thune.
Senator Jeff Sessions charged that negotiators for the Obama administration had simply caved in the face of the same tough negotiating tactics that Russians have adopted with previous administrations.
Russians “started the same bluster against the Obama administration but unfortunately they gave in,” he said in remarks to the Senate.
Senator John Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee led the floor debate on the treaty, accused Republican speakers of “fighting against a phantom” because they were debating “something that has no impact whatsoever.”
Treaty proponents say the preamble language is not legally binding and would not prevent the United States from continuing to develop missile defenses. But changing it effectively would kill the agreement, sending it back to Russia and opening it for further debate and revision by both sides.
The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April, would require the former Cold War rivals to reduce their numbers of strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 each within seven years.
It also would reduce each side’s deployed nuclear missiles and bombers to no more than 700, and would establish a verification and inspection system to ensure the two sides are abiding by the terms of the agreement.
The Senate is expected to debate the treaty, one of Obama’s top priorities for the final days of the current legislative session, until Tuesday. Reid is pressing lawmakers for a final vote before they leave for the Christmas break next week.
It was unclear whether the treaty had enough Republican support to garner the 67 votes needed to pass the 100-member Senate. Treaty proponents mustered a two-thirds majority — including nine Republicans — when they moved to a debate on the accord.
Of the nine Republicans who joined Democrats in bringing the START accord to a debate, six voted for the treaty-killing amendment that was defeated on Saturday, including McCain, who sponsored it.
Editing by Eric Walsh