WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican objections to the new U.S.-Russia START nuclear arms reduction treaty are “red herrings” that could thrust the two countries into a dangerous era of uncertainty, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.
Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher, who led the U.S. side negotiating the new START deal, said it was important the Senate ratify the treaty next month or it may lose the chance to engage with Russia on a range of arms control efforts.
“We’ve had a lot of controversy about this that I think frankly is a lot of red herrings,” Tauscher told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a Washington think-tank.
“While nuclear weapons can be considered to be political, arms reduction treaties should not be. This has taken on an air of being politicized way beyond where it should be,” she said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the START deal in April, committing the former Cold War foes to cut deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent, in what was hailed as the most prominent dividend of Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with the Kremlin.
Proponents of the treaty say while the reduction in nuclear warheads is important, the most significant element of the accord is that it continues the verification and monitoring regime that expired with the end of the START 1 treaty.
Republicans — who control enough votes in the Senate to block its passage — have voiced concern that the treaty may limit U.S. anti-missile defenses. They also say it should be matched by a commitment to modernize U.S. nuclear forces.
Obama has said he hopes the Senate will act on the treaty during the “lame duck” session of Congress that begins on November 15, but it was unclear if Republicans would permit ratification.
A lame duck period is the time between a congressional election in November and the start of a new Congress in January. Obama’s fellow Democrats sustained heavy losses in recent mid-term elections, and are expected to face stronger Republican opposition when the new lawmakers take their seats.
Senator Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, has taken the minority party 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.
White House officials are reportedly talking to Kyl about what would need to happen to move the treaty, which has been endorsed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to a vote of the full Senate during the lame duck session.
“We presume that decisions will be made this week between the White House and leadership on whether or not this would be on the agenda for the lame duck,” said Mark Helmke, a spokesman for Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a backer of the treaty.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week she believed the White House has enough votes to pass the measure. But Tauscher said on Monday she would not act as a “Las Vegas bookmaker” by projecting the odds of passage.
“All the questions have been asked and answered,” Tauscher said. “It’s important that we get it done. Our last opportunity to do it coming forward is in the lame duck. I think that frankly, because of the way the numbers are working, it’s the best opportunity to do it.”
Tauscher said failure to ratify the treaty would deprive the United States of its ability to effectively monitor and verify Russia’s nuclear activities.
She said delaying U.S. ratification of the treaty was already sowing doubts in Moscow, which could affect a wide range of cooperation on arms control.
“It’s difficult for us to move on to a new arms control negotiation and series of talks if we don’t have the first business done by getting the new START ratified. So we have to get that done and move forward,” Tauscher said.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn and David Alexander; editing by Cynthia Osterman