WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, pressing for quick Senate ratification of a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms-reduction treaty, summoned a number of former secretaries of defense and state, Republicans and Democrats, to the White House to rally support for the imperiled agreement.
The White House said Obama wanted to discuss at the gathering why it is in the national interest for the Senate to approve the treaty this year, a move that a key Senate Republican says would be premature.
Those invited to the Roosevelt Room meeting Thursday include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Sen. Richard Lugar and former Sen. Sam Nunn, plus former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Henry Kissinger.
Former defense secretaries William Cohen and William Perry and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft also are included. Vice President Joe Biden will preside, and Obama was to drop in on the meeting.
The White House is mounting an all-out push for ratification of the treaty, which Obama has made a top foreign policy priority. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday he believes the New START deal will come up and pass during the lame-duck Congress, now in progress.
The agreement would shrink the U.S. and Russian arsenals of strategic warheads and revive on-the-ground inspections that ceased when a previous treaty expired nearly a year ago.
Sen. Jon Kyl, a leading Republican voice on the issue, dealt the pact a major setback Tuesday by coming out against a vote this year. Kyl, who's been seeking more money and focus on maintaining and modernizing the remaining arsenal, said more time was needed before moving forward.
When pressed on the issue Wednesday, Kyl told reporters, "We're talking in good faith."
The treaty has support from some moderate Republicans, but Kyl's opposition makes approval a tough climb since many in the GOP were looking to his assent before giving their backing. Sixty-seven votes are needed for approval, so Democrats need at least eight Republican votes for ratification in the current Senate.
Once the newly elected Senate is seated in January, Democrats will need the support of at least 14 Republicans.
"The president will continue to push this and believes the Senate should act on it before they go home," Gibbs told reporters at the White House.
"I think we'll have enough votes to pass it" even without Kyl's support, Gibbs said, calling it crucial to the nuclear inspection regime and international relations.
"I don't think it's going to get pushed into next year," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement Wednesday supporting quick action on the treaty, saying he was "puzzled" by Kyl's stance.
But the administration's hopes suffered another hit when Republican Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio moderate who is retiring this year, expressed his reservations about the treaty.
"America's grand strategy approach towards Russia must be realistic, it must be agile, and as I have said it must take into account the interests of our NATO allies," Voinovich said in a statement. "I am deeply concerned the New START Treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe."
A clearly frustrated Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a treaty supporter, suggested the administration press ahead with a vote despite the opposition of Kyl and others. Lugar, a leading voice on nuclear issues, said if the White House and Democrats wait until next year and the new Congress, the process would have to start anew with hearings, committee votes and a greater risk that the treaty won't be ratified.
"This is a situation of some national security peril," Lugar told reporters.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the pact in Prague in April. Obama met with Medvedev last weekend on the sidelines of an economic meeting in Japan and emphasized his commitment to advancing the treaty during the lame-duck session.
The treaty would reduce U.S. and Russian strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance.
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Kerry said there were no substantive disagreements on the treaty itself and that a major objection of Kyl's should have been removed when the administration pledged an additional $4.1 billion for weapons modernization programs.
Earlier Wednesday, Clinton beseeched the Senate to vote this year.
"This is not an issue that can afford to be postponed," the secretary said after the meeting.
Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms.