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White House Pushes Ahead on New START

(Nov. 18) -President Obama speaks today during a meeting with former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and others on the New START nuclear arms control deal with Russia (Dennis Brack/Getty Images). (Nov. 18) -President Obama speaks today during a meeting with former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and others on the New START nuclear arms control deal with Russia (Dennis Brack/Getty Images).

President Obama today forcefully called on the U.S. Senate to approve a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia before adjourning for the year, saying the country could not "afford to gamble" with oversight of its former Cold War rival's nuclear arsenal, CNN reported (see GSN, Nov. 17).

"The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," the president said during a high-level meeting on the New START pact. "This is not a matter that can be delayed."

Obama said he believes the Senate will provide the votes necessary for the pact to be ratified.

He offered his remarks during a session that included Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three of Clinton's predecessors -- Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Madeleine Albright -- were present, as were former Pentagon chiefs William Cohen and William Perry, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Senator Sam Nunn and the top two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

Ten incoming Republican senators sought to block Obama's push for treaty ratification with a letter delivered today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that called for postponing a vote until the next Congress convenes in January.

"One of the most important tasks of the 112th Congress will be to carefully consider measures that protect the national security of the United States," the senator-elect wrote. "And few matters will more directly impact our security than arms control agreements like New START that would dramatically reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrent in a strategic environment that is becoming ever more perilous" (Alan Silverleib, CNN, Nov. 18).

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April. The pact would require the two nations to cap their deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550, down from a limit of 2,200 required by 2012 under an earlier treaty. It also would set a ceiling of 700 deployed warhead delivery systems, with another 100 allowed in reserve.

At least 67 senators must approve ratification for the treaty to enter into force. In this Congress, that requires support from no fewer than nine Republican senators. Following GOP gains in this month's midterm elections, the administration next year would need 14 Republican yes votes.

Supporters argue the treaty enhances national security by cutting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and by allowing verification activities that were suspended after the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expired in December 2009. Skeptics counter that treaty language could constrain U.S. missile defense options, question whether the planned verification measures are sufficient, and say the Obama administration must pledge to adequately fund modernization of the nation's nuclear-weapon complex.

"We can’t jeopardize the progress that we’ve made in securing vulnerable nuclear materials, or in maintaining a strong sanctions regime against Iran. These are all national interests of the highest order," Obama said in remarks released by the White House.

"The key point here is this is not about politics -– it’s about national security. This is not a matter that can be delayed. Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what’s going on on the ground in Russia," Obama asserted (White House release, Nov. 18).

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the lead GOP figure on the matter, said earlier this week that he did not believe a ratification vote should occur during the current lame-duck session in Congress. That was a blow to the administration and treaty proponents, who scrambled to make the case for action in 2010, the Associated Press reported.

"The president will continue to push this and believes the Senate should act on it before they go home," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday. He asserted that there would be sufficient Senate support for ratification of the pact.

"We're talking in good faith," Kyl said yesterday.

Reid said he was "puzzled" by Kyl's position, while Lugar yesterday said "this is a situation of some national security peril." Delaying a vote into 2011 would require a new round of hearings and committee votes and increases the danger to the pact, the Indiana Republican said.

"This is not an issue that can afford to be postponed," Clinton said.

Moscow is still looking for a Senate vote this year, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

"We have taken note of Senator Kyl's comment. It's not our business to interfere in the procedure of agenda agreement and the Senate's work," he said. "I would like to remind you that the Russian leadership's line that the ratification processes in Russia and the U.S. should be synchronized remains fully valid" (Jim Abrams, Associated Press/Washington Post, Nov. 17).

Clinton indicated she would continue to talk with Kyl on the matter, following a previous face-to-face meeting and a telephone conversation, the New York Times reported.

Kyl avoided a breakfast session yesterday in which Clinton met with Lugar and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"I understand the concerns my former colleagues have about this treaty," said Clinton, who served as a senator from New York before becoming the Obama administration's top diplomat. "There's a lot more outreach that needs to be done" (Mark Landler, New York Times, Nov. 17).

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