WASHINGTON - The Republican point man on nuclear-arms issues said Tuesday he would not support a quick Senate vote on the New START treaty with Russia, dealing a setback to the Obama administration's hopes for the weapons agreement and potentially improved relations with Moscow.
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said that, despite aggressive administration lobbying to win GOP support for a quick vote, there was too little time in the Senate lame-duck session to weigh the complicated issues covered in the treaty.
The treaty text was released to the Senate at the end of April, a few weeks after it was signed in Prague, Czech Republic, by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev.
Many analysts consider New START a small step, and it has strong support from U.S. military officials and former senior diplomats, including former Republican Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger.
But Kyl said he told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) that he did not believe the treaty could be brought to a vote "given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization" of the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.
A number of other congressional Republicans, starting with Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said they will follow Kyl's lead. Kyl's decision is final, an aide said.
Obama has said in recent days that U.S. ratification of the treaty is a top priority for the remainder of the year, and administration and Democratic leaders were surprised and angered by Kyl's announcement. They said they would continue pushing the Republicans to agree to a vote.
"Given New START's bipartisan support and enormous importance to our national security, the time to act is now, and we will continue to seek its approval by the Senate before the end of the year," Vice President Biden said in a statement.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: "We have to deal with this. Our relationship with Russia is at stake."
"If we don't have time to deal with the security of our country, something is really wrong with the Senate," Kerry said.
Administration officials fear that if the treaty vote slips into next year, when the Republicans have six more seats in the Senate, the odds of ratification will diminish.
At that point, to secure the necessary 67 votes - treaties require approval by two-thirds of the Senate - the administration will need every Democrat and 14 Republicans.
In addition, there is a risk that Senate resistance will cause the Russians to try to revise or reject the treaty, souring U.S.-Russian relations. Russian lawmakers already have warned that they are unhappy with what they view as American lawmakers' attempts to reinterpret the pact.
The treaty, and a broader "reset" of relations with Russia, have been among the few major foreign-policy accomplishments of the Obama administration, which is struggling with a deepening Afghan war, stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and an Iranian leadership that appears determined to develop a nuclear bomb.
The treaty would cap the number of active long-range nuclear warheads in the Russian and U.S. arsenals at numbers 30 percent lower - from the current 2,200 down to 1,550 for each country.
It also would set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance.
Obama and others had hoped the treaty would be an easy first step to more substantial arms-reduction agreements with Russia. They also hoped the treaty would encourage other countries to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons, and persuade developing nations not to build nuclear bombs.
But congressional Republican resistance to the treaty coalesced quickly.
Kyl argued that it doesn't make sense to reduce the U.S. warheads until more is done to maintain and modernize the remaining arsenal.
Last week the administration sought to satisfy Kyl's conditions for supporting the treaty with a proposal to significantly boost funding for the nation's nuclear-weapons complex.
A congressional aide briefed on White House plans said last week that the White House was proposing to add $4.1 billion that would go to maintaining and modernizing the arsenal and the laboratories that oversee that effort.
U.S. government officials traveled to Kyl's home state of Arizona to make the proposal. Over the weekend, Obama expressed optimism on the treaty's prospects.
Kyl told reporters that he believed the administration's discussions with him had been "in good faith."
But he said that "this is a very complicated process. It cannot be done overnight. . . . We don't even have a plan in writing yet so it would be a little premature to talk about bringing it up in the lame-duck session."
Stephen Young, an arms-control advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "The U.S. military leadership has been very clear that they would like this treaty as soon as possible. The administration has done more than could be expected to address whatever concerns have been raised, including pledging massive increases in spending on nuclear weapons."
Young said Kyl "did not rule out consideration this year, merely stating he did not think it could be. Only time will tell if the administration - and our military - can persuade him differently."
The White House has rescheduled a meeting with congressional leaders of both parties to Nov. 30 at the Republicans' request. The meeting had been set for Thursday.
House GOP leader John A. Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the White House they had scheduling conflicts
with the initial date.
Obama called for the meeting two days after the midterm elections shifted control of the House from Democrats to Republicans and shrank the Democratic majority in the Senate.
- Associated Press