WASHINGTON — A senior Republican senator Tuesday downplayed prospects for a vote this year on a new nuclear arms reduction accord with Russia, the centerpiece of the Obama administration's effort to "reset" relations with Moscow that has the support of U.S. military commanders and national security experts of both parties.
Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second highest-ranking GOP senator and the leading Republican voice on nuclear weapons issues, said the lame duck Senate had too many other issues before it, leaving insufficient time to consider the New START treaty.
"When (Democratic) 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 in a statement.
Kyl issued a statement amid an attempt by the Obama administration to win a vote by meeting Kyl's demand for more funds to modernize the laboratories and other facilities that maintain U.S. nuclear warheads.
Kyl appeared to reject the offer, but at the same time left an opening for a deal.
"I appreciate the recent effort by the administration to address some of the issues that we have raised, and I look forward to continuing to work" with it, he said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought that a vote could still be held.
"I talked with Senator Kyl today and I do not believe the door is closed to considering New START during the lame duck session," Kerry said. "Ratifying New START is not a political choice, it's a national security imperative."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a conservative member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, went beyond Kyl, saying "It's time to start over with START."
"Historically, no major nuclear arms control treaty has ever been taken up in a lame duck (Senate), and, as I have pointed out repeatedly, the one-sided nature of the hearings before the Senate has not begun to adequately examine this treaty's ramifications," Inhofe said.
Kyl, Inhofe and other conservative lawmakers contend that the accord would constrain the development of U.S. anti-missile defenses, an assertion denied by the Obama administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top U.S. commanders, who have called for its swift approval.
Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the treaty in April. U.S. officials viewed it as the main pillar of an initiative to "reset" relations with Moscow that had sunk under former President George W. Bush to their chilliest level since the Cold War ended in 1991.
The treaty would slash the sides' deployed warheads by about 30 percent and reduce their nuclear-armed bombers and land- and sea-launched ballistic missiles over a seven-year period.
The treaty would also allow each side to resume monitoring the other's nuclear arsenal under a new inspection system. Inspections have been suspended for nearly a year, worrying the U.S. intelligence community.
Despite Kyl's statement, the administration refused to abandon its campaign to win a vote before the lame duck Senate ends before year's end.
Vice President Joe Biden warned that a "failure to pass the New START treaty this year would endanger our national security" because the suspension of U.S. monitoring of Russia's nuclear arsenal would continue.
Moreover, Biden said in a statement, the pact is "fundamental" to Russia's cooperation on a range issues. These include supplies for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan and the enforcement of sanctions aimed at coercing Iran into halting its suspected nuclear weapons program, he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to echo Biden's theme at a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday with Kerry and the panel's top Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, the treaty's leading GOP advocate.
The committee approved the pact on Sept. 16, with Lugar and two other Republicans joining the 11 Democrats in the 14-4 vote. Approval of treaties requires 67 votes in the 100-member chamber.
Six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense and seven former commanders of the U.S. security command all have endorsed the treaty.
President Barack Obama made its approval his "top priority" of the lame duck Senate session following the Republicans' victory in the Nov. 2 elections. The Democrats hold a 59-41 edge in the Senate until Nov. 29, when Republican Mark Kirk, who won an Illinois special election, is sworn in. The GOP will gain five more seats when the new Senate convenes in January.
Many experts think the treaty could be doomed if the vote isn't held before then. That's because it will have to go undergo new committee hearings and votes, and then go to the full chamber, where there will be fewer Republicans ready to support it.
The White House dispatched a team of senior officials to Arizona on Friday in hopes of convincing Kyl to allow a vote by the lame duck Senate in return for meeting his demand for more funds to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and other facilities.
Biden said the administration was prepared to add $4 billion to the $80 billion that it's proposed to spend over the next decade.
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