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Senate warns against concessions on nuclear treaty

Jim Abrams

The Senate is making it clear to the Obama administration that it will look askance at concessions, particularly on missile defense, that the United States might make to conclude a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

In several resolutions included in a defense budget bill passed late Thursday, the Senate went on record endorsing a missile defense system being considered for Eastern Europe that Russia detests, and warning against any arms treaty with Russia that puts limits on that system.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meeting in Moscow earlier this month, set a goal of reducing strategic warheads by about a third, to a range of 1,500 to 1,675. The intent would be to come up with a nuclear arms reduction pact to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires Dec. 5.

But treaties must be ratified by 67 senators or two-thirds of those present, giving the Senate's 40 Republicans, with their traditional advocacy of a strong nuclear deterrent, rare leverage.

Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., won voice approval Thursday of a nonbinding "sense of the Senate" resolution that the START follow-on treaty not include limits on ballistic missile defense, space capabilities or advanced conventional weapons. It also called on the president to report on the administration's plans to enhance the safety, security and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons.

On another voice vote, the Senate endorsed a resolution by Sessions and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., expressing support for a ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Alternative sites should be considered only if they are equally capable of protecting the United States and Europe from future long-range Iranian missiles, it said.

Lieberman said the resolutions "are our way of sending a message both to the administration and to the Russians." He said he is open to options other than Poland and the Czech Republic as sites for a missile defense system, including missile defense cooperation with Russia, but "not at the cost of in any way diminishing our security."

Obama has made no final decision on proceeding with the Poland-Czech plan, proposed during the George W. Bush administration. Russian leaders say deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe is a direct threat to their country. They suggested that progress on an arms agreement could hinge on the U.S. giving up its missile defense plan.

Sessions said he was concerned the administration was pursuing alternatives to the Poland-Czech proposal "as part of a grand strategy to reset relations with Russia and conclude a follow-on to the START nuclear reduction agreement."

He said he was baffled by Russian "bluster."

"Perhaps this is a way they think they can extract concessions from the United States as a bargaining chip," Sessions said.

Conservatives would not be overly concerned about the numbers in a new arms reduction treaty if the administration doesn't look like it is abandoning missile defense and other areas such as weapons development, said Stephen Flanagan, an international security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another factor is that the urgency Cold War arms talks had no longer exists, said Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The Obama administration can overestimate how much momentum there is for doing anything in this area," Schmitt said.

Schmitt said senators will question any treaty that comes to them before the Pentagon completes a congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review. That report on nuclear threats and deterrent capabilities is due by the end of 2010.

"There are chances of ratification," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow and Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation, "provided the administration does not capitulate" on the European defense system.

In 1999, during the Clinton administration, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty after its supporters couldn't muster even a simple majority.

Senators contended the treaty, which the United States informally abides by, lacked adequate means of verification. Obama has expressed interest in trying to get it ratified by the Senate.

The Associated Press