US Senate downs another attempt to kill nuclear treaty

Sunday, December 19, 2010

WASHINGTON - The US Senate voted down an amendment Sunday that would have altered the new nuclear arms reduction accord with Russia and sent the pact back into negotiations between the two countries.

Senators voted 60-32 to defeat the amendment introduced by Republican Senator Jim Risch. Had it passed, the amendment would have killed ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.

Risch was seeking to insert language into the treaty’s preamble to address battlefield - or tactical - nuclear weapons not covered by New START, which calls for reductions of longer-range strategic nuclear arms.

Russia has a much larger tactical weapons arsenal than the United States. Risch and other Republicans wanted wording that would have recognised the “interrelationship” between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Risch said Russia’s stockpile is 10 times bigger than the US arsenal.

But Democrats rallied to defeat the amendment in an unusual Sunday session ahead of Congress’ holiday recess.

Annother amendment sought by Republicans on Saturday was already defeated. It would have removed language in the treaty preamble that referred to missile defence, likewise scuttling the treaty.

Republicans argue that the missile defence references could constrain US development of a system - a notion rejected by President Barack Obama.

Obama has urged the Senate to ratify by the end of this year the pact he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in April. The Senate in the next couple of days could vote on whether to end debate on the pact and move to final ratification by Thursday.

Final ratification under the US Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the 100-seat Senate. The vote is expected to be close. In addition to concerns over missile defence, Republicans have sought greater commitments from the Obama administration for upgrading the current nuclear fleet.

New START requires the countries to cut their nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 warheads and replaces a 1991 version that expired in December 2009. Once in effect, New START will allow both countries to resume verification inspections.

New START is expected to easily get the green light from the Russian Duma. Russian lawmakers said they would wait to vote until seeing a final outcome in the US Senate.

Prospects for US approval improved in recent weeks when several moderate Republicans pledged to back the accord.

Conservative Republicans have pushed to delay ratification until next year, accusing the White House of rushing the pact through without giving lawmakers enough time to study it. The White House has countered that the text of the treaty has been available since shortly after Obama and Medvedev signed it in Prague.

Democrats control 58 Senate seats compared to 42 Republicans, but that majority will shrink to 53 with January’s swearing-in of the next Congress, making New START’s approval more challenging and adding to the sense of urgency to complete it before Congress breaks for holiday recess.

Prominent officials from past Republican administrations, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Colin Powell, as well as former president George HW Bush, have urged the Senate to adopt New START.

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