Lawmakers debating the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia clashed Friday over whether the pact would improve or hurt US national security as pressure mounted for a vote next week before the US Senate breaks for Christmas.
The treaty, one of President Barack Obama's top priorities in the current legislative session, would commit Russia and the United States to cut deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 for each side within seven years.
The agreement, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, is viewed as a centerpiece for improving US-Russian relations. Officials worry that if it fails, Washington could lose Moscow's backing on difficult issues like Iran's nuclear programme and Afghanistan.
Although nine Republicans voted with Democrats to allow debate on the treaty, it was unclear whether all of them would support final approval of the accord, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass in the 100-member Senate.
Republican Senator Bob Corker warned that Democrats had "poisoned the well" on the treaty with partisan political moves to force votes on two pieces of social legislation — gays in the military and immigration — before Christmas. But a Democratic aide said supporters were still confident of getting the 67 votes needed for approval.
Republican senators, debating the issue for a third day, charged on Friday the treaty would unwisely limit development of US offensive and defensive missile systems. They questioned the benefit of continuing to cut atomic weapons and challenged Obama's goal of ultimately eliminating all nuclear arms.
The treaty has broad support in diplomatic and military circles. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has endorsed it, as have the uniformed service chiefs, putting Republicans in the unusual position of disagreeing with the military on a defence issue.
"This treaty does certainly, at the very least, have the threat of reducing our capability of defending ourselves," said Senator Jim Inhofe, who brought out colour charts and maps to support his point.
Senator John McCain, an Obama critic who joined Democrats in voting to begin debate on the treaty, introduced an amendment to eliminate language in the pact's preamble that Republicans fear could impede development of US missile defenses. Approval of the amendment was unlikely because it would effectively kill the treaty and force its renegotiation with Russia.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions accused the Obama administration of caving in to Russian pressure over missile defenses and abandoning the system favoured by President George W Bush for one that is a "bird in the bush" because it won't be completed for years.
"The administration, in negotiating with the Russians, faced a hard-headed approach, a typical Russian negotiating strategy, and they blinked," he said.
Senator John Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee led the floor debate, expressed surprise that Republican opposition to Obama's goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons had become part of the debate.
"For heaven's sake. It's incredible to me that you can't imagine and have a vision of the possibility of a world in which you ultimately work to get there," Kerry said, adding that atomic weapons would not be eliminated for years but "president after president had talked about" that goal.
As the Senate debated the treaty for a third consecutive day, Democratic leader Harry Reid ramped up pressure for lawmakers to wrap up their work on the pact next week. He agreed to extend debate on the agreement until Tuesday, but insisted they vote before leaving for the holiday.
"We've done some very, very important things during this Congress, but there is nothing, nothing more important than the START treaty because it has ramifications far greater than our own country," Reid said.
Reid said some lawmakers were seeking six to seven days for debate on the treaty and he was trying to clear the calendar to permit that. Previous strategic arms control treaties generally have taken two to five days of debate.
Democrats are under pressure to approve the treaty in the remaining days of the current Congress after seeing their 58-42 majority cut to 53-47 in the November midterm elections.
If the treaty is delayed until next year, they would need additional Republican support and would face delays as the newly elected senators take time to learn about the pact.
In addition to cutting deployed nuclear warheads, the pact calls for each side to reduce deployed nuclear missiles and bombers to no more than 700. It also creates a system for on-the-ground inspections and data exchanges to verify the two sides are abiding by the accord.