An agreement between the United States and Russia to slash their nuclear arsenals was in danger of collapse after an influential Republican senator said yesterday that it should not be voted on this year.
With a terse statement, Senator Jon Kyl dealt a major setback to President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve ties with Russia and to his broader strategy for reducing nuclear arms worldwide.
The treaty, known as New Start, had been seen as one of Obama’s top foreign policy accomplishments.
Without the support of Kyl, the leading Republican voice on the treaty, Democrats have little hope of securing at least eight Republican votes – the minimum they would need for ratification in the current Senate.
Kyl’s position, unless reversed, would delay the vote until the newly elected Senate, with an expanded Republican minority, has been sworn in in January.
Vice-President Joe Biden warned that failure to approve the treaty this year would endanger national security.
He said the treaty would renew US authority that expired last year to inspect Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Senate Democrats were holding out hope. The chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Democrat John Kerry, said he had discussed the issue with Kyl and believed the door was still open to a vote before the end of the year.
“Ratifying New Start is not a political choice, it’s a national security imperative,” he said.
Kyl’s statement, however, appeared to leave little room to resolve the issue quickly. He said he told Senate majority leader Harry Reid that he did not believe the treaty could be considered this year.
The treaty would reduce US and Russian limits on strategic warheads to 1550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2200. It would also set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other’s arsenals to verify compliance.
Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit US missile defence options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms.
Kyl has argued that it makes no sense to reduce the number of US warheads until more is done to maintain and modernise the remaining arsenal.
Last week the Administration sought to satisfy his conditions for supporting the treaty with a proposal to boost funding for the US nuclear weapons complex. A congressional aide told AP last week that the White House was proposing to add US$4.1 billion ($5.3 billion) that would go to maintaining and modernising the arsenal and the laboratories that oversee that effort.
Russia has said that it will seek to ratify the treaty simultaneously with a US vote.
THE START TREATY
* Would cut strategic nuclear warheads for both US and Russia
* 2200 is the current ceiling
* 1550 would be the new level
* Both countries would be able to inspect each other’s arsenals to verify compliance
* Democrats need at least 8 Reblican votes to approve the agreement in the current Senate
* Democrats would need the support of at least 14 Republicans in the next Senate