WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's Republican leader came out Sunday against a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, warning Democrats not to rush through President Barack Obama's foreign policy priority in the final days of the postelection Congress. Top Democrats still expressed confidence the Senate would ratify the accord by year's end.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made no prediction about the treaty's success or failure if it came to a vote, but he said many Republicans were just now getting deeply involved in the issue.
"Members are uneasy about it, don't feel thoroughly familiar with it, and I think we would have been a lot better off to take our time," McConnell said. "Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us . . . I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me."
Senate debate was expected to resume Sunday. Treaties require a two-thirds majority of those voting in the Senate, or 67 votes if all 100 senators vote.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Democrats' No. 2 leader in the Senate, and John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said they believe they have the votes to ratify the treaty this year.
Durbin said Sunday would mark a fifth day of debate and that one Republican amendment had been considered Saturday and that another would probably be offered Sunday. "I think we need to bring this to a vote," he said.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the accord — it is known as New START — in April. It would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It would also establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
Republicans focused on wording in the treaty's preamble that they contended would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the U.S. develops a missile defense system in Europe. Democrats argued that the preamble reference to missile defense systems was nonbinding and had no legal authority.
Debate on the treaty was interrupted Saturday with votes on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military — it passed — and a bill creating a pathway to citizenship for young illegal aliens — it failed.
"This treaty needs to be fixed," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "And we are not going to have the time to do that in the bifurcated way or trifurcated way that we're dealing with it here, with other issues being parachuted in all the time."
While Kyl did not predict whether the treaty would be rejected or ratified, he said gaining 67 votes would depend upon whether senators would be able to consider the amendments Republicans wanted to offer.
"I predicted a couple of weeks ago that we would not have time to do this adequately, and I think my prediction's coming true," he said.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and one who supports ratification, said more amendments to the treaty needed to be heard.
"Several Republicans will support it, and I join the chairman in believing that there are the votes there. The problem is really getting to that final vote," Lugar said.
On Saturday, Senate Democrats deflected an initiative by Republicans that would have forced U.S. and Russian negotiators to reopen talks. The 59-37 vote against the amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., indicated the difficulty Obama is having in trying to win ratification of the treaty before a new, more Republican Senate assumes power in January.
Led by McCain, Obama's GOP opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Republicans tried to strike words from the treaty's preamble that they say would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the U.S. develops a missile defense system in Europe. Democrats said a reference in the treaty's preamble on missile defense systems is nonbinding and has no legal authority.
Durbin and Kyl spoke on "Fox News Sunday" while Kerry and Lugar appeared on ABC's "This Week." McConnell spoke on CNN's "State of the Union."
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