As the Senate geared up for a showdown over the New START Monday, opposition grew as leading Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, raised serious questions about loopholes involving verification and other facets of the proposed nuclear pact between Russia and the United States.
Among the major developments:
- McConnell announced Sunday that he will oppose the treaty, saying that Democrats are trying to “jam” it through without serious examination.
- The Senate on Sunday blocked a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have changed the preamble to include language on tactical weapons and the "inter-relationship between nonstrategic and strategic offensive arms.”
- Sen. Lindsey Graham, another potential vote for the treaty, also voiced his opposition, saying he’d write to the Russians to clarify matters he believes the Obama administration has muddled.
- A letter President Barack Obama wrote to McConnell to sway Republican holdouts seemed to have little effect. Obama crafted the letter after an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain was also voted down.
The START plan will be debated Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, still unable to assure the president he has the votes needed for passage, did not say when a final vote would be scheduled.
The treaty calls for the United States and Russia to each cut their number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 within seven years. It is subject to the approval of the Senate and the Federation Council of Russia. Any changes to the treaty now would effectively kill it for the session and send it back to the negotiation table.
McConnell’s opposition now makes ratification a lot harder for Obama, who has staked much of his foreign policy reputation on getting START passed. The treaty needs to be ratified by two-thirds of the 100-member Senate. The Democrats, though in control of the Senate, will need the support of some Republicans.
McConnell’s statements were a blunt response to a letter Obama crafted after the Senate Saturday struck down an amendment by McCain, R-Ariz., that would have amended the treaty's nonbinding preamble by dividing the core mission of the treaty: verifying the reduction of nuclear stockpiles from the more controversial issue of U.S.-backed missile defense systems.
“I’ve decided that I cannot support the treaty. I think the verification provisions are inadequate and I do worry about the missile defense implications of it,” McConnell told CNN’s Candy Crowley.
He further added: “The McCain amendment yesterday regarding missile defense was defeated, and I know the administration actually sent a letter up yesterday, indicating they’re committed to missile defense. But an equally important question is: How do the Russians view missile defense, and how do our European allies view missile defense? And I’m concerned about it. I think if they’d taken more time with this-rushing it right before Christmas, it strikes me as trying to jam us.”
Conservative critics of the treaty, including former Reagan aides Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney, as well as former Bush U.N. ambassador John Bolton, have urged Republican senators to vote no to the treaty. In addition to the lack of clarity over missile defense, critics say START fails to address Russia's 10-to-1 advantage over the U.S. in dangerous tactical nuclear weapons.
Editor's Note: See "Reagan Aide Perle: START 'Seriously Flawed'
Obama insisted in his letter to McConnell that the treaty’s provision "places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs" – and promised to move ahead with “deployment of all four phases" of a missile defense system for European countries who feel threatened by Moscow.
But key foreign policy Republicans such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl says they cannot support the treaty without the fixes outlined in the amendments.
Kyl, the GOP point man on the nuclear arms agreement, told host Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" that he could not vote for the treaty without any amendments. “This treaty needs to be fixed. We’re not going to have time to do that,” he told Wallace. Kyl said Obama should have addressed his letter-writing efforts to the Russians.
“Send a letter to the Russians,” Kyl said. “In fact, change the preamble to the treaty, which would eliminate any doubt about this issue.”
Meanwhile, Graham also said he will not vote to ratify the treaty until Russia accepts the development of the system, which Moscow vehemently opposes.
“I’m not going to vote for START until I hear from the Russians that they understand we can develop four stages of missile defense and if we do, they won’t withdrawal from the treaty,” said the South Carolina Republican.
Graham, one of nine Republicans who had voted to move to executive session to consider the nuclear arms agreement, CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the Senate is now better off waiting until next year.
Graham said he will write Russia to ask for its view on the nuclear arms agreement – specifically, whether the treaty would preclude the United States from developing all four stages of missile defense weapons.
“I need to know the answer to that,” Graham said. “Our military leaders are not who I’m asking to give us the Russian view. I want the Russians to tell me their view of our ability to develop strategic missile defense.”’
Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., a pivotal foreign affairs moderate in the Senate, says there are probably enough Republican votes to ratify the new START treaty but questioned whether there will be enough time to work through GOP amendments before the end of this lame-duck session of Congress.
"Several Republicans will support it and I join [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry] in believing that there are the votes," Lugar told Christiane Amanpour on Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
Editor's Note: See "The START Treaty Must Be Opposed."
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