Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a concession to Moscow, says a new strategic arms control agreement under discussion by the two nuclear powers should be in the form of a legally-binding document.
In a move that appears to clear away a major hurdle to a sweeping new strategic arms limitation accord, the Bush administration says it is prepared to make any arms deal a binding document, be it a treaty or executive agreement.
Moscow had been concerned by statements by administration officials that the each side might merely decide how many nuclear warheads it needs to retain and inform the other side of its decision.
A number of U.S. arms-control advocates had also expressed misgivings about such an informal arrangement, as did Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, at a hearing with Secretary of State Powell on the administration's $25 billion foreign affairs budget for the coming year.
Mr. Powell, who hailed what he said was a positive trend in U.S.-Russian relations since last September's terrorist attacks, said the administration will meet Moscow's concern and make an agreement binding. "To your point Senator Biden, Mr. Chairman, we do expect that as we codify this framework, it will be something that will be legally binding and we are examining different ways in which this can happen. It can be an executive agreement that both houses of Congress might wish to speak on, or it might be a treaty. And we're exploring with Russia and we're discussing, within the administration, the best way to make this a legally binding or codified agreement in some way," he said.
The two sides are in general agreement to cut their nuclear arsenals from the current levels of about 6,000 warheads each to between 1,700 and 2,200 over the next ten years.
The Bush administration has proposed keeping some of the de-commissioned warheads in reserve, a position rejected by Moscow, which wants them all destroyed.
Mr. Powell told the committee the White House still backs the idea of reserve warheads, but also said it supports the same kind of rigid verification and transparency terms that were part of past U.S.-Soviet arms reduction accords.
Russian and U.S. delegations met in Washington last week to lay groundwork for an agreement that Moscow hopes can be signed by Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin at their planned summit in May.