The Obama administration is launching a full-court press to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the START nuclear-weapons treaty with Russia during this winter's lame-duck session of Congress, but the chances of that happening look increasingly unlikely, a delay that is now causing growing frustration in Moscow.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Capitol Hill today to urge the Senate to ratify the treaty, a day after the number-two Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, expressed doubts that the nuclear weapons pact could get done this year.
"Recently some have suggested we should hit the pause button, that it's too difficult to do this treaty in a lame duck session. I strongly disagree," Clinton said at a press conference with Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry and Dick Lugar following a breakfast with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "This is exactly what the American people expect us to do, to come together and do what is necessary to protect our country. We can and must go forward now on the new START treaty during the lame duck."
"For anyone to think we can postpone it or we can avoid it is, I'm afraid, vastly underestimating the continuing threat that is posed to our country," Clinton said, vowing that "we will do whatever it takes, literally around the clock."
"This is not an issue that can afford to be postponed," she said, "so we think once we take that message with the urgency that you've heard from the three of us, we will get the votes and we will pass the treaty."
Clinton's trip to the Hill to meet with House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle came a day after Sen. Kyl said he doubts the treaty can be ratified before the new Congress begins in January.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said Tuesday.
Kyl's reluctance to get on board was a blow to the administration in the wake of their pledge of an additional $4.1 billion to modernize the country's nuclear arsenal, all in a bid to win GOP support. Last week President Obama said ratifying the treaty was his top foreign policy priority for the lame duck session.
"As of now there is no substantive disagreement on this treaty," Foreign Relations Committee chairman Kerry said today. "What separates, apparently, the sense of ability to move forward is a question about money out 10 years into the future for modernization."
White Houses Pushes Reluctant Senate for START Treaty
Republican Lugar, who also supports the treaty, echoed Kerry's calls for the Senate to take action on the treaty in the coming weeks.
"There's 13,300 nuclear warheads aimed at us, our cities, our military installations, everything we have. 13,300," Lugar said. "I've stated frequently to my constituents that any one of those warheads could obliterate the city of Indianapolis."
"We're at a point where we're unlikely to get either the treaty or modernization unless we get real," he said.
Obama and Medvedev signed the new treaty in April in Prague. The nuclear agreement requires both countries to reduce their arsenals from 2,200 deployed warheads each to 1,550 over seven years, a 30 percent reduction from the last treaty. The U.S. and Russia also agreed to reduce their long-range missiles and launchers to 700 for each country as well.
Although the Foreign Relations Committee this fall approved the treaty by a vote of 14-4, with three Republicans voting in favor of it, only Lugar has said he would support it when it comes to a full Senate vote. At that point, the treaty will require 67 votes for approval. With the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinking by six seats in January, it will be even tougher for the administration to whip up the votes it needs.
The inability of Washington to get the treaty ratified now has Moscow feeling, in a word, frustrated.
There's no debate over the contents of a new START in the Russian capital. No need, as Clinton put it in March, for former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to come to Moscow to whip up votes in the Duma. In Moscow, the bottom line is that if the Kremlin wants the treaty ratified, it gets ratified. Moscow and Washington agreed they would ratify the treaty at the same time, so at this point the Russians are sitting and waiting for the Senate to get it done.
But now they are realizing that the chances of the lame duck Senate ratifying it are quickly fading, if not dead already. They are also concerned about the larger implications for the "reset."
"One should agree with Joe Biden who fears that due to procrastinations with the ratification, the United States may lose Moscow's vital support in tackling the problem of Iran and in the war in Afghanistan," Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Russian Federation Council's international affairs committee, told Interfax today.
Margelov called Kyl's comments "surprising," adding, "We are speaking not only of a document meeting the interests of Russia and the United States. The future of the reset process which implies the development of a partnership on security issues depends on the ratification of the treaty in one way or another."
Russia Waits for U.S. to Ratify Nuclear Arms Pact
Margelov's counterpart on the international affairs committee of the Duma -- the Russian government's lower house -- said Republican gains in the midterm elections could compromise the new treaty.
"We are concerned that now, given the fact that there is a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which is in opposition to President Obama, this will interfere with his initiative to restart Russian-American relations," Konstantin Kosachev said yesterday. "The problem is not that [the new START] is a bad document, but the fact that the [Senate] Republicans refuse to ratify the document. We are certain that these questions should not have anything to do with party politics."
For its part, the Foreign Ministry is publicly optimistic, saying they think there's enough time in the lame duck session to get it done. However, if the vote doesn't happen this year, it "would not be the best outcome of the work we have done," said deputy Foreign Ministry Sergei Ryabkov.
The question now is whether to invest in the reset or treat it as a transient moment, one leading analyst said.
"It's back to the question of whether the U.S. treats us as an adversary that needs to be contained or whether we can be partners," Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center told ABC News. "That debate is happening within the Russian councils of government."
It would not be the death of the reset if the new START goes the way of past failed arms treaties, Trenin argued.
"The new START is more a symbol than the heart," he said.
But he suggested it would be a serious blow to the perception of the U.S. in Russia.
"Kyl stands for those within the United States who have a very skeptical view of Russia and who would pursue policies towards Russia that were last seen under George W. Bush," he said.