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.
In the current Senate, at least eight Republicans would have to join the Democratic bloc of 59 votes for ratification.
"I'm confident that we should be able to get the votes," Obama said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sounded not quite as upbeat, telling reporters: "We're going to do our best to get a vote on the START treaty."
Once the newly elected Senate is seated in January, Democrats will need the support of at least 14 Republicans.
Suggesting how difficult that would be, 10 of the newly elected Republican senators said Thursday they supported Kyl's call for delay. In a statement, they said the nuclear pact "would dramatically reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrent."
Still, the White House sees an achievable task in winning over Republicans on grounds of national security. It has already promised a sweetener of more than $4 billion over five years to modernize America's nuclear arsenal, a promise aimed particularly to win Kyl's support.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., met on Thursday with Kyl, the GOP point man on the treaty, and several other Republican senators whose votes would be critical to ratification, including Bob Corker of Tennessee, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and John Thune of South Dakota. "Continued discussions are always helpful," said John McCain of Arizona, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who attended the meeting.
Thune said he didn't think the Senate should vote on the treaty before the end of the year. "There are too many unresolved issues," he said. Nevertheless, he said he expected to hear from administration officials in the coming days as they "start to turn up the decibel level."
Obama was intent on doing that. He entrusted Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime voice in the Senate, to "focus on this issue day and night until it gets done."
And, along with summoning some of his own top brass, the president brought in what he called "some of the most able statesmen from both parties." They included former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker III and Henry Kissinger, former defense secretaries William Perry and William Cohen and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
"This is not a matter that can be delayed," Obama said. "Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what's going on on the ground in Russia. And if we delay indefinitely, American leadership on nonproliferation and America's national security will be weakened."
Two potential Republican candidates for president — Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin — both have come out against the pact.
As for the public, two-thirds of Americans believe the Senate should ratify the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, according to an Associated Press-GfK Poll conducted earlier this month. Besides a strong majority of Democrats, supporters include more than six in 10 Republicans.