Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top Obama administration officials told Senators Thursday the new U.S.-Russia strategic arms reduction treaty does not constrain U.S. missile defense plans. Republican Senators say recent Russian statements suggest otherwise.
The Obama administration will need at least eight Republican votes to get the two-thirds majority in the Senate needed for ratification of the treaty.
Clinton led a team of senior administration officials to the Senate Armed Services Committee to try to defuse Republican skepticism about the agreement.
The treaty, signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in April, will cut the number of deployed offensive nuclear warheads of the two powers by about 30 per cent, to about 1,550 on both sides.
It makes scant mention of missile defense other than to stipulate that offensive silos and launchers cannot be converted to defensive uses.
But Republicans have seized on public statements by Russian officials since the signing criticizing U.S. missile defense efforts aimed against Iran and North Korea, and suggesting that a broader U.S. program might prompt Russia to abandon the treaty.
Ranking Republican committee member John McCain said Russia must not be allowed to dictate U.S. missile defense strategy.
"Any notion of a Russian veto on our missile-defense architecture is unacceptable, and we should oppose any attempt by any administration to do so," he said.
Clinton told McCain Russia has objected to U.S. missile defense efforts since arms control talks began in the Cold War era, but that public statements by Russian leaders do not change their treaty commitments.
"Russia has, as the chairman said, issued a unilateral statement expressing its view. But that is not an agreed-upon view. That is not in the treaty. It's the equivalent of a press release, and we are not in any way bound by it," she said.
Clinton was joined at the hearing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Republican Bush administration, and the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
Mullen said the treaty has the full support of the uniformed armed services, and that swift ratification is essential to restore arms verification procedures that lapsed when the previous treaty with Moscow expired last December.
"We're in our seventh month right now with no treaty with the Russians, and I'd just re-emphasize what Secretary Gates said, that it's my view that we are much better off with it than without it," he said.
Defense Secretary Gates said the administration is committed, in tandem with strategic weapons cuts, to modernize its remaining nuclear stockpile - an effort independent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman said will be essential to Senate ratification.
"Ultimately I think whether or not the New Start treaty is ratified will depend on members of the Senate of both parties having the confidence that the administration is committed to modernizing our current nuclear stockpile," he said.
President Obama has said he would like to see U.S. ratification of the treaty completed by the end of this year, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has suggested the process may take a few months longer.
The Russian parliament has not yet acted on the accord.