WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed confidence on Thursday the U.S. Senate would debate the New START nuclear treaty with Russia this year, as he gave no sign of yielding to Republican pressure to scale back his agenda for the coming weeks.
The treaty is one of President Barack Obama’s top priorities for the current Congress. Some leading Republicans have indicated a willingness to debate the treaty if Reid allowed ample time for discussion and first resolved outstanding tax and spending legislation.
Reid is pushing Congress to do considerably more before it breaks for the holidays, including an immigration bill, legislation lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military and ratifying New START. He also wants measures to fund the government and extend tax breaks due to expire soon.
“I’m confident and hopeful that we can work our way through all these things. All those things are on my agenda,” Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I think if we set our mind to it (START), we can get it done.”
Senator Bob Corker, one of the Republican lawmakers who joined in advancing the treaty out of committee, said discussions with the administration to resolve outstanding concerns were “going in a very constructive way.”
“We still have details to be worked out,” he added. “But I think they are being worked on, and if there is time on the floor, it is a real possibility as to doing it this year.”
The strategic arms treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, commits the two Cold War rivals to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years — a cut of up to 30 percent.
Administration officials say it is a centerpiece of improved relations with Moscow, which has been cooperating with the United States on issues like supply routes for troops in Afghanistan and pressure over Iran’s nuclear program.
If the Senate failed to pass the treaty, they say, it could have a negative impact on all of those areas of cooperation that are important to U.S. security interests.
Corker said for the treaty to advance, Reid would have to make sure there was adequate time for senators to debate it, voice concerns and offer suggestions. He expressed concern that time was running out, taken up with other matters like food safety legislation.
“One of the most important things that has to occur is that every senator has to feel like they have had the time to weigh in,” Corker said. “You don’t want to create a hasty environment, a rushed environment.”
Obama appears to have gained Republican support for the treaty in recent days. Consideration of the accord before the end of the year seemed unlikely a few weeks ago after Senator Jon Kyl, who has taken the Republican lead on the issue, said he did not believe there was enough time remaining.
Kyl, Corker and other Republicans who leaned in favor have continued to work through many of their concerns with the administration. But it was not clear Republicans would agree to debate the treaty along with a crowded agenda of other items.
They have threatened to stand in the way of ratification until domestic tax and spending bills were finished.
The treaty also has divided Republicans.
Former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker, George Shultz, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell signed an article in The Washington Post on Thursday endorsing it while remaining neutral on timing of its passage.
Two former officials from Republican President Ronald Reagan’s administration opposed the treaty.
Edwin Meese, who was attorney general, and Richard Perle, who was an assistant secretary of defense, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Reagan, who began the first START negotiations, would not have supported the current accord.
Editing by Paul Simao