Senate Republicans signaled a willingness to debate the New START nuclear treaty with Russia in the final weeks of the year but indicated it could happen only if Democrats drop other priorities to allow the necessary time.
President Barack Obama has made ratification of the treaty a top priority for the final weeks of the current Congress. He raised the issue in a meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday, calling it “absolutely essential” to US national security.
The strategic arms treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, commits the two Cold War rivals to reduce deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years — a cut of up to 30 percent, Reuters reports.
Ratification of the treaty before the new year was thrown into doubt two weeks ago when Senator Jon Kyl, the top Republican negotiator on the issue, said he did not believe there was enough time to resolve outstanding differences on the accord.
Kyl and other Republicans have raised concerns with the administration about the need to modernize the US nuclear arsenal and to ensure the treaty does not interfere with development of US missile defenses or conventional weapons systems.
Without Kyl’s endorsement, it appeared Democrats might not be able to win enough Republican support to get the 67 votes necessary to ratify the treaty in the 100-seat Senate. But Senator John McCain told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show on Tuesday he hoped a deal could be reached before year’s end.
“I believe that we could move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Senator Kyl’s concerns, and mine, about missile defense and others, and I hope we can do that,” said McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and leading Republican voice on national security.
Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker said Republicans might be willing to take up the START treaty before the new year if Democrats pared the amount of legislation they are trying to pass in the so-called lame duck session — the final weeks before a new Congress takes office in January.
Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the November election and saw their majority significantly reduced in the Senate. Passage of legislation will be more difficult after the new Congress takes office.
CROWDED LAME DUCK AGENDA
Democrats have lined up a string of legislation they hope to pass by January, including a resolution to fund government operations in the coming month, a measure to extend expiring tax breaks for the middle class, and a provision to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
“It’s possible, in my view, to do some serious things in the lame duck. It’s not possible to do START, taxes, unemployment insurance, the Dream Act, the firefighters thing and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Graham said, referring to the measures the Democrats are hoping Congress will consider.
“To me the question is: Does the majority want to take up START, and … if they do, that means really not taking up all of these other issues they continue to talk about,” Corker said after meeting Graham and other Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Let’s deal with the issue of extending tax policy, let’s deal with the continuing resolution (to fund the government) and let’s spend the couple of weeks that it might take on the floor with START,” Corker said.
Graham said he thought the treaty could pick up a substantial number of Republican votes if the Democrats scaled back their agenda for the remaining weeks and gave lawmakers plenty of time to deal with questions raised by START. He said his goal would be a treaty that would get more than 67 votes.
Corker, one of several Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee who voted in favor of the treaty in committee, said the administration was continuing to have discussions with Kyl and himself. He said the administration responded “in a very responsible way” late on Monday to some of their concerns.
Corker said Republican senators would meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss what had been agreed with the administration on modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The administration has pledged some US$85 billion over a decade to nuclear modernization, a key Republican concern.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said supporters of the treaty were making “quiet, steady progress” in working through the concerns of individual Republican senators, including those who voted for it in committee and others leaning in favor.
“We’re having a lot of very good conversations. I’m optimistic that there is both time and capacity to get it done,” Kerry said. “I think what we need to do is make sure we carve out space and get it done even as we do some of the other business.”