McConnell Refuses to Back Nuclear Weapons Treaty

Updated: 12:08 p.m.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will not support the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty over concerns that its missile defense language will restrict the United States and that its verification provisions are inadequate, he said Sunday.

The Kentucky Republican was one of several Senators to discuss the treaty with Russia during the Sunday morning talk shows. Although McConnell declined during his appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” to predict whether enough Republicans would join Democrats to support the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that ratification would not be approved in the lame-duck session and that the Senate should start over on the treaty in the 112th Congress.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.) joined several Democrats on Sunday in predicting there are enough votes in the chamber supporting it.

The votes of two-thirds of Senators, 67 votes in the full chamber, are needed to approve ratification of a treaty, and Democrats will need the support of nine Republicans if every Senator who caucuses with the Democrats votes in favor.

Republicans have complained that the deal will constrain the nation’s ability to develop missile defense systems, but in a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell on Saturday, President Barack Obama dismissed those complaints.

“I know the administration actually sent a letter up yesterday indicating they’re committed to missile defense, but an equally important question is how do the Russians view missile defense, and how do our European allies view missile defense? And I’m concerned about it,” McConnell said.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the key Republican negotiator on the treaty, said Sunday that if the president is committed to missile defense, he should “tell it to the Russians.” In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Kyl said he would “absolutely” vote against the treaty if no changes are made.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry argued Sunday that the treaty’s language puts no restraint on the nation’s missile defense capacity.

“The important thing is, the Russians wanted to have a binding statement precluding us from having missile defense. There is nothing in there that restricts our missile defense system,” the Massachusetts Democrat said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The president made that crystal clear in a letter he sent to the leadership. ... Within the four corners of the treaty, there is zero restriction on U.S. missile defense.”

Lugar, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on “This Week” that not ratifying the treaty presents “a very bad picture” for national security. Continued U.S. inspections of Russian nuclear stores and a cooperative stance against nuclear development in Iran and North Korea would be two important outcomes of the treaty, the Indiana Republican said.

“To throw away all of those opportunities simply because some feel the Russians are no longer relevant or we should just simply build whatever we want to, quite apart from the Russians, seems to me is an illogical stance, but we’re hearing a lot of that,” he added.

The treaty cleared a key hurdle Saturday when Democrats beat back a GOP amendment, 37-59, to change preamble language linking offensive and defensive missile systems. Because such an amendment would directly change the language of the treaty, it would have had the effect of killing the agreement.

The Senate is scheduled to resume work on START at noon Sunday, and a vote on an amendment is expected to begin around 3 p.m.

Kerry and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” predicted that the Senate has enough votes to ratify the treaty, while Lugar warned that the problem would be reaching the final vote. Kyl and Graham argued that there isn’t enough time in the lame-duck session to address Republican concerns, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was cautious about its chances, saying on “Face the Nation” that Democrats “hope the votes are there.”

Vice President Joseph Biden said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he believes the treaty is being held up by both substantive criticisms and political gamesmanship by Republicans.

With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), “there are substantive criticisms,” Biden said. “He’s worried about whether or not we’re going to make good on our commitment to deploy all four phases of the missile defense system in Europe. We are. That’s a legitimate concern.” Biden added that others “simply are against any arms control agreement.” However, he said he believes there are enough votes to ratify the treaty.

McConnell said that although members of the Foreign Relations Committee have studied the bill, other Senators need more time to look at it.

“All of the sudden once again we’re trying to rush things before Christmas Eve,” he said. “I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me.”

Reid responded in a statement Sunday that Republicans have had plenty of time to review the treaty.

“I have great respect for the Republican leader but am deeply disappointed that he has decided to oppose the New START Treaty,” said Reid, who wants the treaty to be ratified before the end of the 111th Congress.

“The Obama Administration has spent the past 8 months working to address legitimate concerns and the Senate has conducted an extensive bipartisan review of the treaty, which has been publicly available since May,” he added. “We have spent the last 4 days on the Senate floor debating the treaty and have encouraged our colleagues to offer amendments to address any policy concerns related to the treaty.”

McConnell also spoke Sunday about an improved relationship between Obama and Congressional Republicans, saying the recently enacted tax cut measure was a good compromise package made up of 76 percent Republican policy.

“We’re going to concentrate now on reducing spending and debt, and I hope the president will join us,” McConnell said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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