WASHINGTON — Insisting the nation's security could be in peril, President Barack Obama rallied former diplomatic and military chiefs from both parties Thursday to pressure reluctant Republican senators to ratify a nuclear weapons deal with Russia. He predicted he would gain the votes this year, though foes gave him little chance of success.
The ratification fight is testing both the power of the president and relations between the world's two nuclear giants. Obama set the stakes ominously high, warning of an unchecked Russian nuclear arsenal, undermined credibility of the United States and unraveling global unity about how to contain a rogue Iran.
"It is a national security imperative," Obama declared from the White House. He surrounded himself in the Roosevelt Room with respected diplomats and military leaders of the modern era, including those from Republican administrations, in an attempt to portray statesmanship rising above politics.
Yet key Senate Republicans held their ground, underscoring Obama's difficulty in rescuing one of his foreign policy priorities. It was an early challenge to his political strength, just two weeks after the Republicans handily won the midterm elections.
It was unclear how Obama could muster the 67 votes he needs in the 100-person Senate to win ratification before Congress ends its current wrap-up session. Discussions took place by the hour Thursday, by phone and in private corners.
"I remain convinced it's too tall a lift to do it in the lame duck session, but everyone's still talking," said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose support is seen as pivotal for his party. Kyl startled the White House with that position earlier in the week, prompting Obama to begin lobbying more publicly and forcefully.
The pact would reduce the limits on strategic warheads held by the United States and Russia and would set up a system so each could inspect and verify the other's arsenal. Those points alone are of huge significance to both governments as a matter of mutual security and leadership to a watching world.
The broader issue is the strength of the vital U.S.-Russia relationship.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty months ago. If the Senate balks, the White House believes Russia's cooperation on other difficult issues could erode. In fact, the two presidents have already discussed the likelihood of that.
Russia's support is vital to the United States in providing supply help for the war in Afghanistan, strengthening international pressure on Iran over its nuclear intentions and securing nuclear materials around the globe.
On Capitol Hill, Republican opposition is rooted in varying arguments: doubts about the strength of verification procedures, concerns about whether the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options, skepticism about whether the Senate can squeeze a vote into a packed, final legislative session.
Looming over all that is the prospect that Republicans, still basking in election victories, could deny the president a major foreign policy victory.
"It would be a serious problem if the Senate does not approve the treaty," said John B. Bellinger III, a legal adviser to the State Department and the National Security Council during President George W. Bush's administration. "You can certainly understand that every other country in the world, and particularly major powers like China, the next time they are in negotiations with the United States — this will hurt us if they think our negotiators can't make good on their word."
One reason Obama is pressing for action so urgently is that there is no assurance the next Senate, which will convene in January with more Republicans, will ratify the pact anytime soon, if at all. At best, a renewed hearing process could take months.
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