WASHINGTON — The Obama administration appeared headed Wednesday toward its first major post-election foreign policy battle with its Republican opponents in the Senate, over a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the administration will "do whatever it takes" to win approval of the New START treaty in the lame duck Senate by year's end. The White House cast the issue as a "test" of Republican willingness to put national security above partisan politics.
"We're going to get this done because it is crucial to our security," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Top GOP lawmakers, however, said that they'd back their main negotiator and No. 2 leader, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who suggested Tuesday that a vote on the treaty should be put off until the new Senate convenes in January, when Republicans will control six more seats as a result of the Nov. 2 elections.
"We look to Jon (Kyl), who says there is insufficient funding and that's all I know," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has held nine hearings on New START and has budgetary oversight over U.S. nuclear weapons. "I'm confident that we can work things out, but I would defer to Jon."
McCain was referring to Kyl's call for more money to modernize aging U.S. nuclear arms facilities. To mollify Kyl, the Obama administration has agreed to add $4.1 billion to the $80 billion it already was proposing to spend on nuclear modernization over the next decade.
In an apparent bid to step up public pressure the Senate GOP leadership to allow a vote, a group of senior former Republican and Democratic national security officials who have publicly endorsed the treaty were to meet Thursday morning at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and senior U.S. military officers.
The group was to include former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Henry Kissinger and former secretaries of defense William Cohen and William Perry, as well as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, according to the White House.
Kyl and other opponents have also charged that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defenses, a contention denied by the administration and U.S. military commanders.
Not all GOP lawmakers stood with Kyl.
Lugar, for years the leading GOP voice on arms control and a key New START supporter, chastised Republican leaders, saying they want to avoid compelling their members to take a stand on the issue.
"Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty. Maybe people would prefer not to do his or her duty right now," he said. "Sometimes when you prefer not to vote, you attempt to find reasons not to vote."
President Barack Obama declared the pact his "top priority" for the lame duck Congress a day after midterm elections in which Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives and pared the Senate's Democratic majority, making it potentially harder to win the 67 votes required for treaty approval.
Lugar said he fears that the treaty, which was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September, could be doomed if the vote is left to the incoming Senate, as it would have to go through the legislative process all over again.
"Endless hearings, markup, back to trying to get some time on the floor," Lugar said. "It will be some time before the treaty is ever heard from again."
The accord, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would limit each side to no more than 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads apiece within seven years, or about a 30 percent reduction.
It also would establish a new system for monitoring each other's compliance with the reductions, allowing U.S. and Russian experts to resume onsite inspections that have been suspended for nearly a year.
"We need to get our inspectors back into Russia," Clinton told a Capitol Hill news conference that she held with Lugar and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. "We need the stability, transparency and predictability that New START will provide by giving us insight into Russia's strategic arsenal."
A bruising fight over the vote could prompt further legislative gridlock on key foreign policy issues in the new Congress and sow skepticism abroad of Obama's foreign policy stewardship. Moreover, a failure to win New START's approval could weaken Russia's cooperation on containing Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
It also could weaken Medvedev, the treaty's most prominent Russian supporter, and empower hardliners around Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"Some have suggested we hit the pause button; that it is too difficult to do this treaty in the lame duck session. I strongly disagree," said Clinton, who vowed that the administration would work for a vote "around the clock, to reach out, to answer questions, to have discussions."
Gibbs said that Obama would continue "to push this."
"I think this is going to be a test of the degree to which both sides can work together on things that are of common interest to the American people," Gibbs said.
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that Democratic support for increasing funding for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons facilities would collapse unless a deal is struck quickly on holding a treaty vote.
"We don't have time for Senator Kyl to dilly dally for still more funding," said Kimball, who noted that Obama's proposed $84.1 billion increase over 10 years represents a 20 percent increase over spending on the "nuclear weapons complex" under former President George W. Bush.
Stephen Flanagan, an expert on Russia and national security at the center-right Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there are two possible reasons for the GOP leadership's stance: pure partisan politics, or a mix of muscle-flexing and policy negotiation.
He said he suspected that with a more powerful minority, Senate Republicans see themselves in a stronger position to set a price for their cooperation.
Alternately, Flanagan said, "There's the completely cynical view — that this is a flat-out desire to deny him (Obama) one of his most important foreign policy achievements."
If the Republicans go that route, however, they'd be "really playing with fire, because there's the risk that in fact Russia becomes much less cooperative," Flanagan warned.
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