Democrats are making a final push for approval this year of an arms control treaty with Russia, President Barack Obama's top foreign policy priority.
Time is not on their side. Senate Democrats were looking to begin debate on Wednesday on the New START treaty, while opponents were threatening stalling tactics to run out the clock.
The White House has signaled that Obama would delay his holiday vacation to ensure ratification of the treaty that would limit both nations' nuclear warheads and establish a system for verification. Proponents of the treaty say it is essential because it would return weapons inspectors to Russia and keep the two biggest nuclear powers on the path to reducing their arsenals. Opponents have asserted it would limit U.S. missile defense options and argued that it has insufficient procedures to verify Russia's adherence to the treaty.
Supporters are pushing for ratification in this legislative session because prospects for passage will dim when the Democrats' majority shrinks by five senators in January.
The treaty is just one of the items on the Senate Democrats' must-do list for the remaining session. They also must pass a tax cut bill and a measure to keep the government running. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to keep lawmakers in session through Christmas, and New Year's Day if necessary.
"We are not going to walk away from any of the work that we have to do." He said he would move for a vote on the treaty and was confident he had the numbers to ratify it. The U.S. Constitution requires approval by 67 of the 100 senators to ratify a treaty. Republican votes will be necessary whether the vote is now or in the new Senate with a smaller Democratic majority.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said earlier that the Senate could begin debate as early as Wednesday.
Obama has pushed hard for ratification of the treaty, which has the backing of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as secretaries of state and defense for Republican and Democratic administrations.
Several Republican senators, however, have expressed misgivings that there is not enough time in the session to give the pact the attention it requires. Twenty-two Republican senators signed a letter Dec. 2 calling for consideration of the treaty to be delayed until next year.
Obama has gained support for the pact in recent days and is within striking distance of the 67-vote threshold. At least eight Republicans have signaled they could support the treaty, although with some qualifications. All 58 senators in the Democratic caucus are expected to back the treaty.
"I believe we can pass the START treaty if we get a chance to do it," the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat John Kerry, said Tuesday.
Several Republicans have opposed quick action on the treaty and could thwart Reid's effort to move forward with various procedural obstacles or amendments.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama made the nuclear treaty with Russia a top priority during the remaining session in part because he believes there are more than enough votes in the Senate to support ratification.
"I don't know why you'd put off until next year what you can accomplish this year," Gibbs said.
Obama signed the treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. The treaty would allow each country 1,550 strategic warheads, down from the current ceiling of 2,200.