WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s drive to ratify the New START nuclear treaty with Russia by year’s end suffered a serious setback on Tuesday when a key Republican senator said there was not enough time this year to resolve remaining differences.
The statement by Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, prompted Vice President Joe Biden to warn that failure to pass the treaty this year would endanger U.S. national security by leaving the two countries blind to each others’ nuclear intentions.
Biden said the administration had moved to address Kyl’s concerns about nuclear modernization, making clear it planned to invest $80 billion over the next decade to upgrade U.S. nuclear forces, and pledging an additional $4.1 billion for the next five years following consultations with Kyl.
Kyl has taken the Republican lead in negotiations with the administration on the treaty, which was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April and committed the former Cold War foes to cut deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent, to no more than 1,550, within seven years.
The treaty must be approved by the U.S. Senate and the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, before it will enter into force. Medvedev has pushed the Kremlin-controlled Duma not to ratify the treaty until Senate approval is certain.
It was unclear whether the accord could move to a vote of the full Senate without Kyl’s support. Democrats need significant Republican backing to muster the 67 votes to ratify the treaty in the 100-member chamber. Senate aides say Kyl is key to approving the treaty this year.
Kyl, who has been pressing for more funds to modernize U.S. strategic forces, issued a statement on Tuesday morning saying he did not believe the outgoing U.S. Congress had the time to finish its work on START because of other pressing business.
“When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame-duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization,” Kyl said.
Obama has made ratification of the treaty one of his top priorities for the remaining weeks of the current Congress. He reassured Medvedev on Sunday that he was committed to getting Senate approval for the accord by the end of the year.
Democrats fear the treaty will face greater opposition when the new Congress is seated next year because losses in recent nationwide elections left them with only a slim majority in the Senate.
Kyl’s statement prompted the administration to initiate a round of consultations with the senator, followed by a statement from Biden
“Without ratification of this treaty, we will have no Americans on the ground to inspect Russia’s nuclear activities, no verification regime to track Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal ... and no verified nuclear reductions,” Biden said.
Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had spoken to Kyl and believed the Republican leader was still open to considering the treaty during the lame-duck session.
Republicans have raised a number of objections to the treaty, saying it could impede U.S. plans for an anti-missile defense system and worrying about the changes in the inspection and verification regime.
Analysts are skeptical of some Republican concerns and expressed disappointment about ratification delays.
“If this were a truly radical agreement that substantially reduced American strategic forces and if there were major unresolved issues in the treaty, I would understand why more time is necessary for Senate consideration,” said former Ambassador Richard Burt, a chief negotiator on the original START treaty.
”But this is a rather modest agreement that reduces existing U.S. forces by between 20 and 25 percent,“ he said. ”It doesn’t affect our existing force structure of bombers and land-based missiles and sea-based missiles. And it provides for a very rigorous verification regime.
“I‘m a little perplexed at why they can’t consider it during the lame-duck session.”
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Andy Sullivan, Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan; Editing by Bill Trott