(CNSNews.com) - Ahead of an anticipated announcement on a new U.S.-Russia strategic arms reduction treaty, a leading Russian lawmaker Thursday pondered the chances of Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocking the move, a key foreign policy priority for President Obama.
“The Democrats’ prospects in the midterm elections to the Congress in the fall of this year are not clear,” Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house, the Federation Council, told the state-run news agency, RIA Novosti.
“The Republicans are strong in opposition as usual,” he added.
RIA Novosti reported that the Kremlin wanted the new treaty, which aims to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), to be ratified by the two countries’ legislatures simultaneously.
Margelov said although there was some opposition in the Russian parliament, he believed neither the Federation Council nor the lower Duma would block the move. The same could not be said for the U.S. Senate.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev would speak by phone shortly to “wrap up a new treaty.”
Earlier, an unnamed Kremlin official announced that the two sides had reached agreement, and that the new treaty would be signed by Obama and Medvedev, probably in the Czech capital, Prague, in the coming days.
Gibbs in response would only say that the two sides were “close” to a treaty.
Margelov said immediately after the signing, a U.S.-Russia inter-parliamentary working group – which he co-chairs with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) – will meet to discuss the ratification process.
RIA Novosti said the Russian lawmaker predicted difficult dialogue ahead, citing Republican support for developing missile defense and new nuclear weapons, “as well as the Pentagon’s opposition to Obama’s nuclear doctrine.”
Nuclear weapons’ modernization sought
Any new treaty will need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, with the support of at least 67 senators required.
In December, 41 senators – 40 Republicans and an independent – sent a letter to Obama indicating that they would endorse a START follow-on treaty only if it was linked to specific plans for a significant modernizing of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl last week wrote another letter, reminding Obama about the issue. The National Defense Authorization Act includes a requirement that the administration, at the same time it submits the new arms reduction treaty to the Senate, also produces a 10-year plan to “to enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile.”
The political climate following passage of the Democrats’ controversial health care legislation may also be a factor in the push for ratification.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, told a radio station in his home state Monday that the Democrats had “poisoned the well” and warned that “there will be no cooperation for the rest of the year.”
In later comments, he told CNBC that “of course we’ll work where the national interest is involved … what I was referring to is that they say we may need your help on something that’s on their agenda, and we won’t do that. Of course we will continue to work in areas that are our responsibilities.”
Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement that once the treaty documents arrive at the Senate, he and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), “look forward to holding hearings and giving the treaty immediate and careful attention.”
Kerry said the committee intended to begin hearings between Easter and Memorial Day. He had assured Obama “that if the final negotiations and all that follows go smoothly, we will work to ensure that the Senate can act on the treaty this year.”
Missile defense hurdles
In a speech in Prague last spring, Obama called for “a world without nuclear weapons” and shortly thereafter reached an initial agreement with Medvedev to reduce nuclear stockpiles.
A summit in Moscow three months later took the process forward, with the two presidents agreeing to cut the number of deployed strategic warheads to a maximum of 1,675 on each side, down from a current ceiling of 2,200.
But drawn-out negotiations failed to achieve agreement by the time START expired on Dec. 5. The parties then agreed to retain the status quo while talks continued.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, widely viewed as Russia’s real leader, suggested late last year that the delays were due to U.S. missile defense plans in Europe.
Although Obama earlier in the year dropped Bush-era proposals to deploy a system in Poland and the Czech Republic to protect against Iranian missiles – plans bitterly opposed by Moscow – an alternative option being explored further south also has drawn resistance from Russia.
Missile defense is another issue of importance to Republican senators. Should the treaty they are called on to ratify contain any language linking offensive weapons with missile defense – a linkage the Russians have been pushing for – further GOP opposition is likely.
Beyond the START follow-on treaty, Obama’s nuclear-related agenda includes hosting a meeting of dozens of leaders in Washington on securing nuclear material, followed by a five-yearly review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May.
Obama also hopes to secure Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by President Clinton in 1996. The Senate voted against ratification in 1999; critics worried the treaty could undermine the ability of the U.S. to maintain its nuclear superiority, and also questioned how compliance would be verified.
Unless the U.S. and eight other specified countries – China, Iran, Egypt, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Indonesia – sign and ratify the CTBT, it cannot enter into force.