Prospects for the successful ratification of New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia, suffered a dangerous setback this week as a key Republican Senator virtually ruled out supporting the treaty during the ongoing lame duck session in the U.S. Congress.
Senator John Kyl of Arizona said in a statement on Tuesday, “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 modernisation.”
Though Mr. Kyl added that he appreciated the recent efforts by the Obama administration to address some of the issues he and his party had raised, the failure to pass the treaty during the lame duck session might entirely deny the Obama administration what is potential one of its most important foreign policy achievements.
If the treaty does not pass before the U.S. Congress reconvenes early next year, President Barack Obama will face an even more daunting challenge since the Democrats' hold over the Senate has been weakened after the elections earlier this month and they will hold only 51 seats in January.
Reacting to Mr. Kyl's refusal to engage on the matter sooner, Vice-President Joseph Biden said: “Failure to pass the New START Treaty this year would endanger our national security. Without ratification of this Treaty, we will have no Americans on the ground to inspect Russia's nuclear activities, no verification regime to track Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal, less cooperation between the two nations that account for 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, and no verified nuclear reductions.”
Mr. Biden also noted the treaty was fundamental to the U.S.-Russia relationship, and critical to the U.S.' ability to provide supplies to its troops in Afghanistan. Further, it had salience in the context of imposing and enforcing strong sanctions on the Iranian government, he said.
Touching upon the quid pro quo element of the treaty between the White House and the Republicans, Mr. Biden underscored the fact that Mr. Obama had agreed to invest $80 billion on the modernisation of the U.S.' nuclear arsenal over the next decade, and, based on consultations with Mr. Kyl, had conceded an additional $4.1 billion for such modernisation over the next five years.
On possible next steps forward, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the administration would continue to engage with Mr. Kyl and others “in good faith... but our message is that the START Treaty should be ratified now.” Mr. Crowley added that the Obama administration had put forward a package that ensured the U.S. a strong nuclear deterrent.
Speaking days before Mr. Kyl revealed his unexpected blockade, Mr. Obama had said about the treaty's ratification, “I feel reasonably good about our prospects. It was voted out of committee with strong bipartisan support ... We have been in a series of conversations with Senator Kyl, whose top priority is making sure that the nuclear arsenal that we do have is modernised. I share that goal.”
Both the President and other senior White House officials such as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes emphasised the broader foreign policy benefits that the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations, which the treaty embodied, would bring.