Republican Objects to Russia Telling U.S. to Leave Arms-Reduction Treaty Alone

By Patrick Goodenough | December 21, 2010 | 6:02 AM EST

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) responds on the Senate floor Monday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's statement to the effect that the New START treaty now being debated by the U.S. Senate “cannot be reopened.” (Screenshot: C-SPAN)

( – “Who is this guy telling us what we can do under our Constitution?” a Republican senator asked on the Senate floor Monday, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that an arms-reduction treaty now under consideration cannot be amended.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) speaking on the Senate floor on Monday evening, said he found Lavrov's comments "almost laughable because it’s just as if all he has to do is say that and we have to follow course.”

The White House and Democratic leadership are anxious to see the New START treaty approved for ratification in the waning days of the Congress, and President Obama has been working the phones, urging senators to support it.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs would not say who was being called or whether anyone had said that as a result of the intervention they had changed their position.

Despite the opposition announced at the weekend by Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and fellow senior Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, Gibbs repeated earlier assertions that the administration was confident the advise-and-consent resolution would pass later this week.

The Senate in recent days has been considering a number of GOP-proposed amendments, seeking to change language in the treaty and its preamble.

So far all have been defeated, including one on Monday seeking to increase the annual number of inspections of nuclear arsenals, and another looking to raise the limit of launchers that may be deployed by the U.S. and Russia.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START treaty in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

New START, which reduces the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the two sides, was signed by Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev last April.

Critics have raised questions about various aspects of the negotiated treaty, including verification procedures and concerns that the Russians, who have long resisted U.S. missile defense plans in Europe, will try to use the pact to limit further missile defense initiatives.

Proponents insist the treaty does not constrain missile defense options and have characterized some of the objections raised as GOP obstructionism. Gibbs earlier called an attempt to have the treaty and associated documents read aloud on the Senate floor “a new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security.”

Accusations of politicization have come from the Republicans side as well.

“The American people don’t want to us squeeze our most important work into the final days of the session,” McConnell told the Senate on Monday.

“It’s unfortunate that something as important as the Senate’s consideration of a treaty like this one was truncated in order to meet another arbitrary deadline or the wish-list of the liberal base,” he said.

“Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician’s desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the first of the year.”

Speaking to the Russian news agency Interfax, Lavrov voiced the hope that senators would “show a responsible approach by supporting it.”

“I can just emphasize that the START treaty developed strictly on parity basis, in our view is completely in line with the national interests of Russia and the U.S.,” he said. “It cannot be reopened and become a subject of new negotiations.”

Lavrov’s comments brought a strong reaction from Inhofe, who quoted from a Congressional Research Service study on the role of the Senate in a treaty process: “Amendments are proposed changes in the actual text of the treaty … [they] amount, therefore, to Senate counter offers that alter the original deal agreed to by the United States and the other country.”

He continued, “If the Senate gives its consent to New START with amendment to the text, the treaty is sent back over to Russia and the Duma meets, and they decide what they’re going to do with it.

“And then of course they make changes and then it comes back over here,” Inhofe said. “This is something that’s bee going on for 200 years. Why all of a sudden are we in a position where we're not going to do it and we look at our constitutional responsibility as something that is in the past?”

‘Future of bilateral relations not directly tied to New START’

Obama and top administration officials have argued that without the treaty, the Kremlin may pull back from cooperating with the West on a range of issues, in particular the effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff.

“Without a new treaty, we’ll risk turning back the progress we’ve made in our relationship with Russia, which is essential to enforce strong sanctions against Iran, secure vulnerable nuclear materials from terrorists, and resupply our troops in Afghanistan,” the president said in his weekly address Sunday.

In his interview with Interfax, Lavrov was asked about the likely impact of failure of ratification on Washington’s “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, and whether Moscow would change its position on Iran, Afghanistan and other matters.

He replied that New START ratification would provide strong impetus for the development of Russia-U.S. dialogue, but added “I would not say that the future of our bilateral relations is directly dependent on the outcome of New START ratification hearings.”

“Nuclear disarmament, although being a key avenue of our cooperation with the United States, is still not the only one,” Lavrov added. “Our cooperation is many-sided. This is a considerable difference from previous years when Russian-U.S. relations revolved mainly around traditional arms-control issues.”

A procedural vote on ending debate and advancing the treaty to a final vote is expected on Tuesday.

When the pact is put to a final vote, on Wednesday or Thursday, it will require the support of two-thirds of the Senate – 67 votes if all 100 senators are present for the vote. To reach that threshold, nine Republicans will have to vote with all of the Democrats (and the two Independents).

If the vote was held over until the new Congress, the number of required Republican votes would rise to 14.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow