The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has begun ratification hearings on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - or START.
The New START Treaty was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev on April 8 in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. It replaces the 1991 START I treaty that expired last December.
Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, a private research group, says the new pact reduces by 25 to 30 percent the number of deployed strategic - or long-range - nuclear warheads on each side.
"The New START Treaty has two main limits: one on strategic nuclear warheads of 1,550. It has a limit of no more than 700 operationally deployed strategic delivery systems and another limit of no more than 800 strategic delivery systems of all kinds," he said.
Many experts, including David Holloway from Stanford University, say the new limits on long-range warheads are modest.
"I was somewhat surprised that the total wasn't lower - I mean the ceiling on the number of strategic nuclear warheads each side could have. Initially I thought they might go to 1,000 and I know they discussed the possibility of 1,000 but ultimately they settled on 1,550 nuclear warheads apiece," he said.
The treaty also provides verification provisions that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates describes as unique. "This treaty for the first time gives us actual access to Russian weapons and Russian facilities. We've had access to facilities, but not the weapons themselves before," he said.
Secretary Gates, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as that body began ratification hearings for the New START Treaty.
Secretary Clinton urged quick Senate ratification. "Some may argue that we don't need the New START Treaty," she said. "But the choice before us is between this treaty and no treaty governing our nuclear security relationship with Russia; between this treaty and no agreed verification mechanisms on Russia's strategic nuclear forces; between this treaty and no legal obligation for Russia to maintain its strategic nuclear forces below an agreed level."
67 out of 100 Senators must approve the treaty in order for it to be ratified. Many analysts, including Daryl Kimball, say the treaty has broad support among senators.
"The questions and criticisms of the treaty don't have to do with the treaty itself, but side issues: missile defense, or the fact that tactical nuclear weapons are not covered in this strategic arms reduction treaty," he said. "So I do not foresee Republican senators voting against this treaty in a large group."
One man urging the Senate to reject the treaty is former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and arms control expert John Bolton. "I don't think this is a very good deal. I think the Russians out-bargained the Obama administration and I think that the limits that have been created are too low," he said. "I don't think this is the alpha [beginning] and the omega [end] - the Senate can, and often has, sent negotiators back to do a better job. So even if the Senate were to take a vote on this treaty and reject it, it just means Obama needs to go back to the negotiating table."
But experts such as David Holloway believe if the Senate rejected the treaty, the consequences would be far more devastating.
"I think that would torpedo President Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and it would be a serious setback to the U.S.-Russian relationship as well," he said. "Because Russia would feel that this seemed to be not a very far-reaching treaty but one that in some sense codified the strategic relationship - and if you can't even do that with the U.S., what does it mean the U.S. really wants? Is it aiming for some kind of ultimate superiority over Russia?"
In addition to the Senate, the Russian Duma - or parliament - must also ratify the New START treaty. Experts say it appears that neither body is rushing to complete the ratification process.