President says legislation on cutting US-Russian nuclear arsenals will be pushed through lame duck session
Barack Obama today promised to push the New Start treaty on cutting US-Russian nuclear arsenals through the lame duck session of Congress, which begins this week.
Obama, speaking to reporters after a meeting with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of an Asian economic summit in Seoul, said: "I reiterated my commitment to get the Start treaty done during the lame duck session, and I've communicated to Congress that it is a top priority."
But it is likely to be a cliffhanger, with the fate of the treaty dependent on only a handful of Republican senators and with less than four weeks of the congressional session left.
The Democrats have 59 votes in the 100-member Senate, but need eight Republicans to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to ratify the treaty.
The critical figure in deciding whether New Start lives or dies will be Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, who has threatened to block the treaty until the administration spends more on modernising the existing arsenal.
The White House is trying to buy him off, offering him $4bn (£2.4bn) more late last week on top of billions already pledged for modernisation.
But Kyl, like other Republicans, is torn between doing a deal and all-out opposition to Obama.
The New Start treaty, signed by Obama and Medvedev in April, is prized by the Obama administration as one of its most important foreign policy achievements.
It set the seal on Obama's initiative to "reset" US-Russian relations, and has been the principal practical step so far towards "a world without nuclear weapons", which Obama declared to be the ultimate goal of US policy in a 2009 speech in Prague.
Once ratified, the treaty would reduce the number of long-range nuclear warheads each side deployed to 1,550, roughly one-third down from current levels. It would keep delivery systems – missiles and bombers – below a ceiling of 700.
But when administration officials, Pentagon generals and arms control advocates join forces to lobby the senate for ratification over the next few days, they will focus not on the numbers but on the cost of having no treaty at all if ratification is shelved.
The previous Start treaty expired last December, along with its verification procedures. As a consequence, the Pentagon has pointed out, there have been no US inspections of Russian nuclear sites.
The head of US nuclear forces, General Kevin Chilton, told the Senate: "If we don't get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and … we have no insight into what they're doing. So it's the worst of both possible worlds."
The Republicans' public position is that they are prepared to back the treaty so long as the remainder of the nuclear arsenal is modernised.
The White House sees the issue as a test of whether the Republicans are serious about a deal or whether their overriding priority is ensuring Obama is not re-elected in 2012.
It is adopting a carrot and stick approach. As well as offering the carrot of $4bn towards modernisation, it is hinting that, if the Senate fails to ratify the treaty, billions already pledged towards modernisation could also be withdrawn.
Even if Kyl was to come round, there is the problem of a crowded Congressional session, with members facing votes on the budget and tax cuts, and possibly issues such as the repeal of the ban on out gay people serving in the military.
If the treaty is not ratified in the remainder of this session, the White House sees it becoming even harder in the new Congress – scheduled to start in January, when the Republicans will have more senators, elected earlier this month.
Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said Kyl's position was "irresponsible and unnecessary", arguing that the administration has already earmarked $80bn on a weapons modernisation programme and another $100bn on delivery systems over the next 10 years.
"Senate failure to approve the treaty would directly harm US national security by denying the US military information about Russian nuclear forces and plans, and force both nations to rely on worst-case assumptions for planning, increasing the risk of miscalculation and mistakes, Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, which finances research on nuclear weapons policy, said .
"But the treaty's impact goes far behind the modest cuts it makes in US and Russian forces.
"The Senate failure would undermine global confidence in US leadership, weaken the president in any future treaty talks and weaken efforts to stop other states from getting nuclear weapons."