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Obama, Clinton rally support for stalled treaty

Nov. 18, 2010

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Associated Press
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, flanked by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., left, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., talks about the START Treaty following their meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

By Anne Gearan and Matthew Lee
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Setbacks are piling up for President Barack Obama's foreign policy efforts as he struggles to salvage his signature nuclear weapons treaty with Russia and to keep Mideast peace talks alive.

The apparent collapse of the arms treaty because of political opposition in Washington follows the disappointments Obama suffered recently abroad. He returned from a tour of Asian democracies without a trophy trade agreement with South Korea, and he was unable to persuade other nations to join the U.S. in branding China as a currency manipulator.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton beseeched the Senate to ratify the treaty this year, saying delay was a threat to the nation's security. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he believes the New START deal will come up and be approved during the lame-duck session now under way.

The pact, a top foreign policy priority for Obama, would shrink the U.S. and Russian arsenals of strategic warheads and revive on-the-ground inspections that ceased when a previous treaty expired nearly a year ago.

"This is not an issue that can afford to be postponed," Clinton said after an unusual breakfast meeting with key members of Congress.

Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been telling senators the same thing, and Russian officials have warned that failure to ratify the pact imperils the fragile effort to mend relations between Washington and Moscow.

All to little effect.

A key Senate Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, stunned the administration by saying he does not want to vote on the treaty during the current session. Without the support of Kyl, a 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.

The administration's hopes suffered another hit when Republican Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio moderate who is retiring this year, expressed his reservations Wednesday.

"I am deeply concerned the New START treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe," Voinovich said in a statement.

Obama has pointed to the treaty as an example of his practical foreign policy and his attention to a frayed U.S. relationship with Russia. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the agreement in Prague last April, agreeing to reduce the Cold War superpowers' arsenals to the lowest point since the frightening arms race of the 1960s.

"This ceremony is a testament to the truth that old adversaries can forge new partnerships," Obama declared then. "It is just one step on a longer journey."

Obama has been less bullish about chances for a Mideast peace settlement, but he persuaded Israel and the Palestinians to renew long-dormant peace talks this fall. The talks quickly hit an impasse over the issue of Israeli homebuilding on disputed land, and the United States has now offered Israel a package of military and other incentives in exchange for a temporary slowdown.

Facing rising opposition to the deal within his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he is trying to get negotiations back on track. He is seeking written assurances from the U.S. that he will not have to extend the settlement freeze beyond three months.

Clinton declined to comment Wednesday on a demand for a written guarantee, saying only that efforts to revive the peace talks were continuing.

"We are working intensively to create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations that can lead to a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace," she said during a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington.

But late Wednesday, a senior U.S. official confirmed the Obama administration is drafting the written diplomatic and security assurances to Israel.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive diplomacy involved in convincing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the stalled talks.

The administration never expected swift progress on resolving one of the world's longest and most bitter conflicts. But the weeks of delay probably mean that status quo -- just keeping the talks alive -- is the best the White House can hope for this year.

The arms treaty had seemed like a more tangible goal, and failure to ratify it this year looms as a larger disappointment for Obama.

Clinton pledged to work with Senate supporters of the pact to overcome resistance. "We will do whatever it takes literally around the clock," she said.

Unless reversed, Kyl's position would delay the vote until the newly elected Senate arrives. Democrats would then need the support of at least 14 Republicans.

The White House has been trying to avoid that fate, knowing that ratification could slip out of reach in the face of opposition to the treaty from most Republicans -- and with an increasingly partisan political environment in Washington.

At a minimum, ratification would be set back for months because Republicans are likely to demand new hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee so that newly elected lawmakers could be briefed.