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US Senate Debates Nuclear Arms Pact with Russia

The U.S. Senate's first full day of deliberations Thursday on a nuclear arms treaty with Russia produced a vigorous debate on the merits and potential pitfalls of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but no votes that bring the measure closer to ratification.

One by one, senators came forward to express support, misgivings or opposition to the New START treaty that would limit U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads and delivery systems, and reestablish a verification regime after a yearlong absence.

Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said the premise of the accord, that reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear arms will make the world a safer place, is misguided. The president's [i.e., Barack Obama's] stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons -- some say this treaty needs to be adopted and ratified in order to achieve that great goal. I submit that goal is neither feasible nor desirable. It is a bad step to take," he said.

Kyl pointed out that America's atomic arsenal has deterred a nuclear attack against the United States and helped keep the peace for more than half a century, and that a treaty affecting the nation's nuclear deterrent warrants careful consideration.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado countered that nuclear arms reductions are critical to non-proliferation efforts worldwide. "The threat of global nuclear war has receded, but the risk of attack has increased, enabled by the spread of nuclear technology, and the danger of materials falling into the wrong hands. We [i.e., the United States] cannot be seen as a credible leader or a nation strongly committed to meeting our non-proliferation obligations, unless we pursue further nuclear arms reductions ourselves," he said.

Senators also aired views on missile defense, the need to modernize America's nuclear arsenal and the strength of the pact's nuclear verification provisions.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, repeatedly urged his colleagues to bring forth amendments so they could be put to a vote. "I would like to get a sense when we might anticipate being able to really do business on the treaty [i.e., move it forward]," he said.

Repeatedly, Republicans accused treaty proponents of attempting to short-circuit debate and rush treaty approval during a brief end-of-year congressional session.

"Rushing a treaty of this magnitude through a lame-duck session is not what the Founders [of the nation] had in mind when they gave this body the power of 'advice and consent' in these serious matters," said Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada.

Senator Kyl noted that funding for the federal government runs out in a matter of days and that Congress has yet to approve a budget for the coming year. He said the New START treaty is but one of many items on a loaded Senate agenda before a new Congress arrives in January. "There is no earthly way to do all of this within the time that we have," he said.

An exasperated Senator Kerry suggested that, if time is short, Republicans should allow the ratification process to go forward. "We are ready to vote on the treaty. And the only thing we are waiting for are the people who say, 'We do not have time,' and who have not brought an amendment to the floor. We are here to do business. And I think it will be clear why we are not able to. We are going to stay here, we have made that clear," he said.

Kerry suggested that if Republican senators are late getting home for Christmas next week, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Any amendment put forth by treaty opponents could, if adopted, unravel the pact. None of the amendments mentioned so far is believed to have the votes for passage.

Wednesday saw a 66 to 32 vote to begin debate on the New START accord, one vote shy of the 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty. Of the two non-voting senators, Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh is expected to support the treaty in a final vote.