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Obama's nuclear treaty in jeopardy

Nov. 11, 2010

By Desmond Butler
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Senate approval of President Barack Obama's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which once looked close to a sure thing, is now in jeopardy.

The administration is scrambling to get enough Republican support in the Senate to ratify the New START treaty before the Democrats' majority shrinks by six in January.

But Republicans have little incentive to give Obama a big political boost after leaving him reeling from their strong gains in last week's congressional elections.

A failure to win passage could trip up one of the administration's top foreign policy goals: improving relations with Russia. The treaty, signed in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, has been the most tangible sign of success, and failure to get it ratified could be viewed as a rebuke in Moscow.

It also would leave Obama's push for even greater restrictions on the world's nuclear arsenal in doubt.

Some Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms. Advocates dispute both charges.

A broader Republican fear is that the treaty is a small step toward weakening the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Though the treaty would only modestly affect the current U.S. arsenal, many Republicans see Obama's vision of a gradual elimination of the world's nuclear weapons as unrealistic. They argue that U.S. nuclear might is critical for American security and global stability.

The Obama administration is worried that ratification could slip out of reach if a vote were to be delayed. Ellen Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control, said this week that the lame-duck session Congress will convene before most newly elected senators take their seats in January could be the administration's last shot.

"Our last opportunity to do it coming forward is in the lame duck," she said. "I think that, frankly, because of the way the numbers are working, it's the best opportunity to do it."

Since the election, senior administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been pressing the case for ratification with Republican lawmakers. A long list of retired generals and senior statesmen from both parties have expressed support, arguing that that the treaty should be beyond politics.

But its best shot seems to lie in a political deal with one key Republican senator.

Republican Jon Kyl has wielded the most sway in his party on the issue. His approval could push support beyond the 67 votes the administration needs for ratification, although many Republicans still are likely to oppose it.