Tension is ratcheting up over the fate of the U.S.-Russia New START treaty on the eve of crucial votes this week. The administration continued to express confidence in Senate ratification by the end of the year. But President Obama was reportedly working the phones Dec. 20, and Senate Republicans appeared increasingly determined to use the pact as a political football in their drive to block all possible administration initiatives.
Speaking on CNN's State of the Union Dec. 19, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged to vote against the pact. Though President Obama had just sent the Senate a letter pledging the U.S. will keep working on missile defense systems, McConnell expressed dissatisfaction over the issue. He also claimed the administration was trying to rush the treaty through the Senate confirmation process, though it has already had 18 hearings before Senate committees.
Speaking on the Senate floor Dec. 20, McConnell also contended the pact's verification measures were inadequate - a strange concern considering that no verification measures have been in place since the previous U.S.-Russian nuclear arms pact expired over a year ago.
While McConnell's opposition was no surprise, the administration had held out hope that Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., could be won to join other Republican Senators who do support the treaty. But Kyl, too, declared he would not vote for New START, contending that it had had too little consideration by the Senate. This, of course, would delay a vote until the new Congress convenes with a significantly larger Republican Senate minority.
Meanwhile, among Republicans backing the pact are Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Ohio's Sen. George Voinovich and Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett said he is leaning toward support. It was considered likely that the two other Republican Foreign Relations Committee members who voted to send the treaty to the floor would also support it in the final vote.
Over the weekend two amendments were defeated - one affecting language on missile defense and the other regarding tactical weapons. At press time two other amendments, to raise the number of weapons inspectors and to slightly increase deployed nuclear delivery vehicles, were pending.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the treaty "cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations." Russia's parliament is expected to ratify the pact after the Senate does so.
The treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would reduce the long-range nuclear weapons of the two countries to 1,550 each, a cut of about 30 percent. While the treaty itself is modest, it is generally viewed as a vital step on the road to achieving a nuclear-free world. New START is supported by most present and former members of the country's military and foreign policy establishment.
Disarmament advocates have expressed great concern that the Senate Republicans held the treaty hostage to gain a commitment from the administration to spend $85 billion on modernizing the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure - an effort most arms control analysts consider completely unnecessary to maintain the U.S. arsenal in its current state.
It is now also clear the Republicans have extracted a further ransom by demanding the president state explicit support for missile defense systems.
Observers point out, however, that recent tests of U.S. missile defense components have been conspicuous failures, and warn that the possibility of developing such systems would itself totally destabilize nuclear disarmament efforts.