President Barack Obama summoned a number of former defense secretaries and secretaries of state of both major US political parties to the White House to rally support for an imperiled nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.
Those invited to Thursday's meeting included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Sen. Richard Lugar and former Sen. Sam Nunn, plus former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Former defense secretaries William Cohen and William Perry and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft also were included.
The White House said Obama wanted to discuss why it is in the national interest that the Senate approve the treaty this year, a move that a key Senate Republican says would be premature.
The White House is mounting an all-out push for ratification of the treaty, which Obama has made a top foreign policy priority. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday that he believes the New START deal will come up and pass during the lame-duck Congress, now in progress.
The agreement would shrink the US and Russian arsenals of strategic warheads and revive on-the-ground inspections that ceased when a previous treaty expired nearly a year ago.
Senator Jon Kyl, a leading Republican voice on the issue, dealt the pact a major setback on Tuesday by coming out against a vote this year. Kyl, who's been seeking more money and focus on maintaining and modernizing the remaining arsenal, said more time was needed before moving forward. When pressed on the issue on Wednesday, Kyl said, "We're talking in good faith."
The treaty has support from some moderate Republicans, but Kyl's opposition makes approval a tough climb since many Republicans were looking to his assent before giving their backing.
Sixty-seven votes are needed for approval, so Democrats need at least eight Republican votes for ratification in the current Senate.Once the newly elected Senate is sworn in January, Democrats will need the support of at least 14 Republicans.
"The president will continue to push this and believes the Senate should act on it before they go home," Gibbs said at the White House. "I think we'll have enough votes to pass it" even without Kyl's support, he said, calling it crucial to the nuclear inspection regime and international relations. He added, "I don't think it's going to get pushed into next year."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the leading Democrat, issued a statement Wednesday supporting quick action on the treaty, saying he was "puzzled" by Kyl's stance.
But the administration's hopes suffered another hit when Republican Sen. George Voinovich, an moderate who is retiring this year, expressed his reservations with the treaty. "America's grand strategy approach towards Russia must be realistic, it must be agile, and as I have said it must take into account the interests of our NATO allies," Voinovich said. "I am deeply concerned the New START Treaty may once again undermine the confidence of our friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe."
A clearly frustrated Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a treaty supporter, suggested the administration press ahead with a vote despite the opposition of Kyl and others.
Lugar, a leading voice on nuclear issues, said if the White House and Democrats wait until next year and the new Congress, the process would have to start anew with hearings, committee votes and a greater risk that the treaty isn't ratified. "This is a situation of some national security peril," Lugar said.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the pact in Prague in April. Obama met with Medvedev last weekend on the sidelines of an economic meeting in Japan and emphasized his commitment to advancing the treaty during the lame-duck session.
The treaty would reduce US and Russian strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance.
Kerry said there were no substantive disagreements on the treaty itself and that a major objection of Kyl's should have been removed when the administration pledged an additional $4.1 billion for weapons modernization programs.
Earlier on Wednesday, Clinton beseeched the Senate to vote this year. "This is not an issue that can afford to be postponed," the secretary said after the meeting.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday that the treaty must advance. "I'm very comfortable with our military capability that's represented in this treaty. I'm very comfortable with the verification piece," Mullen said.
In Moscow, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said officials there still expect the Senate to find time for ratifying the treaty this fall.
"We have taken note of Sen. Kyl's comment. It's not our business to interfere in the procedure of agenda agreement and the Senate's work," Ryabkov said. "I would like to remind you that the Russian leadership's line that the ratification processes in Russia and the US should be synchronized remains fully valid."
Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit US missile defense options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms.