War in Senate Brewing Over U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Treaty

As President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev focus on economic issues during their seventh meeting today, debate over the new nuclear arms treaty that is the cornerstone of improved U.S.-Russian relations will continue across town in the Senate.

That the Foreign Relations Committee will be holding two hearings on the pact to reduce each country's nuclear arsenal while the presidents talk about innovation at the White House and meet with business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows just how much the relationship between Russia and the United States has changed over the past year or so, White House aides say.

"This visit takes place at a new phase in U.S.-Russia relations," says National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes. "It comes after a period when we've made very substantial progress in resetting the U.S.-Russia relationship and making concrete progress on a number of very important and substantive issues."

Video of President Barack Obama announcing new treaty with Russia.Play
President Barack Obama Announces Nuclear Arms Treaty With Russia

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START, was signed by the presidents in April and now needs to win 67 votes in the Senate for ratification. Other signs of the improved relations cited by the White House: securing Russian support for United Nations sanctions against North Korea and Iran, gaining approval from Russia to allow troops and supplies to cross its borders on the way to Afghanistan, and Russia's participation in Obama's 50-nation Nuclear Security Summit in April.

On Thursday, the leaders will broaden their agenda to include economic issues.

Medvedev got a head start Wednesday, stopping in California's Silicon Valley on his way east. During a visit with Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, he set up his own Twitter account, KremlinRussia, and sent out his first tweet in Russian: "Hello everyone. I am now in Twitter and this is my first message," he wrote.

VIDEO: Nuclear Arms TreatyPlay
U.S. Arms Treaty With Russia

At the White House, the presidents will discuss a host of non-security issues ranging from "sports to health to civil society," said Mike McFaul, Obama's director of Russia and Central Asian Affairs.

Meanwhile, the most substantive agreement reached by the two presidents to date remains before the Senate, and some Republicans are balking.

So far, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., has held eight hearings on the treaty to cut each country's nuclear stockpile by about a third, and he plans as many as 13 before the full committee votes late this month. The Armed Services Committee also is holding hearings.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, says a vote in the full Senate is expected by the end of the year.

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A host of former top government officials, including GOP secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger, have testified in support of the treaty.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., however, says the treaty could jeopardize the nation's security by limiting both the impact of deterrence and the United States' right to build missile defense systems. "To put it bluntly, this treaty will have profound negative implications for U.S. national security," he says.

James Schlesinger, who served as Defense secretary under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, disagrees. "It is obligatory for the United States to ratify," he told Kerry's committee. There is "nothing in the treaty that is problematic" with respect to missile defense.

With so many Republican cold warriors behind it, "the argument has changed," says David Cohen, an arms-control activist and founder of Civic Ventures. Now, "it's are you a sane, prudent responsible person? Or are you going to be on the fringe?"

VIDEO: George Stephanopoulos talks to the president about his plan to cut nukes.Play

The White House views the treaty as a crucial step toward Obama's goal of stopping the global spread of nuclear weapons and an example that should be set by the two countries that hold 90 percent of the world's stockpile. The treaty demonstrates a commitment to non-proliferation, Rhodes says.

If the Senate doesn't vote before the November elections and Obama's Democratic party loses control of the Senate, passage could get trickier. But most experts say the treaty likely will get through with 80 or more votes.

"The American people want to see Congress accomplish something, and START is a made-to-order agreement," says Andy Johnson, head of the national security programs at the politically moderate think tank Third Way. "If the Republicans delay the process, they open themselves up to the charge of putting politics over national security."

The Russian Parliament also is likely to vote on ratification this year.

Contributing: The Associated Press