WASHINGTON — The U.S. and Russia are close to signing an agreement to slash their arsenals of nuclear weapons, officials said Wednesday, setting the stage for the two former Cold War rivals to sign a treaty in Prague shortly after Easter.
"We're very close to getting an agreement," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
He said that the two countries can't finalize the deal until President Barack Obama speaks personally with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, but added that they're likely to talk within the next several days.
"The president I think hopes to speak to the Russian leader in the next several days, but there's still some things that need to be worked out," Gibbs said.
"The two presidents will talk soon to finalize the language, but terms have been agreed to and both sides are expecting a signing in Prague in early April," said a person close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Officials in the Czech Republic said Wednesday that the two leaders are expected to sign the START II treaty in Prague sometime after Easter, or April 4. That would be almost exactly a year after Obama delivered a major speech there spelling out his hopes for a nuclear-free world.
It also would allow Obama to use the signed treaty as a springboard to an international summit in Washington April 12 on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
"We've always discussed internally returning to the city (where) the president outlined a speech in last year envisioning a world without nuclear weapons," Gibbs said. "We believe that a new START treaty begins to take many important steps between the two greatest holders of those nuclear weapons. So I would anticipate that when we have something to sign, it will be in Prague."
The proposed treaty is intended to replace and build on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, which expired on Dec. 5. The new pact is expected to limit deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,500 to 1,600 warheads each, a reduction from a limit of 2,200 due to take effect on Dec. 31, 2012.
Obama had hoped to sign a new treaty before the old one expired, but the two sides wrangled over a Russian demand for the right to withdraw unilaterally from the treaty if it felt its intercontinental missiles were threatened by a U.S. missile defense system the Obama administration has planned for Romania. The resolution of that issue isn't yet known.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday after meeting with Obama that his panel would begin hearings on the proposed treaty soon after Easter.
"A well-designed treaty will send an important message to the rest of the world that America is prepared to lead efforts with key stakeholders to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons," he said.
"I assured the president that we strongly support his efforts, and that if the final negotiations and all that follows go smoothly, we will work to ensure that the Senate can act on the treaty this year."
It will take 67 votes in the Senate to ratify the pact: The Constitution requires two-thirds of senators present to approve a treaty.
"It depends on the treaty," said Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the top Republican on the committee, who also met with Obama.
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