Obama gets Powell's backing on START nuclear deal

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 1 2010 5:08 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rallied support for a stalled nuclear treaty from former Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday, as Republican lawmakers indicated a greater willingness to ratify the agreement with Russia by the end of the year.

Both Obama and Powell warned of grave consequences if the Senate fails to ratify the New START pact, which would reduce how many strategic warheads the United States and Russia could hold and set up a system so each could inspect and verify the other's arsenal.

"When you have uncertainty in the area of nuclear weapons, that's a much more dangerous world to live in," Obama said from the Oval Office after a meeting with Powell and Vice President Joe Biden.

Powell, a retired four-star Army general and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said he fully supports the treaty, and believes Obama has adequately addressed the concerns of Republicans lawmakers over verification and modernization of the remaining U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Failing to ratify the treaty, Powell said, could leave the U.S. in a vulnerable position.

"We're not exactly sure what's going on in the Russian Federation, and they're not exactly sure what's going on in the United States," said Powell, who joined Obama in urging the Senate to ratify the treaty by the end of the year.

White House officials were cautiously optimistic Wednesday that momentum was building toward the treaty's ultimate ratification. Officials specifically pointed to comments this week from Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who both indicated they'd like to finish work on the treaty this year.

More than a dozen GOP lawmakers met to discuss the administration's proposal on funding for modernizing the nuclear arsenal. Republicans, led by Sen. Jon Kyl, have argued that the Senate should not consider the treaty until more is done to maintain and improve the nuclear complex.

Sen. Richard Lugar, a proponent of the treaty, said that he presented a letter at the meeting from the directors of the main U.S. nuclear laboratories backing the administration's plan and that it was well received by his colleagues.

Maine's moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe credited the White House for working with Republicans to address their questions.

"Speaking for myself, I think there is that reflection and recognition that we can get it done this year," she said.

Leading Republican senators had argued that any action on START would have to come after the Senate addresses an extension of Bush-era tax rates and legislation to keep the government operating during the lame-duck session.

Republicans have threatened to block any other legislative action that reaches the floor of the Senate. But that threat, spelled out in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, specifically did not apply to the START treaty.

"Were we to finish the two things that we absolutely must do — taxes and spending — the more time that would be left for something else," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.

Reid also wants to hold votes on immigration legislation and ending the military's don't-ask, don't-tell policy for gay service members.

The White House has sought to cast the treaty's ratification as a national security imperative, not a political issue. Officials have underscored the need for the U.S. to show credibility in its newly improved relationship with Russia, whose support is vital in providing supply help for the war in Afghanistan and strengthening international pressure on Iran over its nuclear intentions.

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