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Republican Amendment to START Accord Fails Senate; Debate Continues

Obama Medvedev

April 8, 2010 : President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New START in Prague. Obama warns that failure to ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia will undercut American leadership on scores of challenges it faces worldwide. (AP)

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Sunday blocked a Republican-sponsored amendment on a nuclear arms reduction treaty that would have sent the accord back to the negotiating table with Russia.

Democratic senators will continue to try to win over reluctant Republicans to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, but may find several unwilling to budge on ratification because of language in the preamble that Republicans say will inhibit U.S. authority to develop its missile defense capabilities.

The failed amendment offered by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would have changed the preamble to include language on tactical weapons and the "inter-relationship between non-strategic and strategic offensive arms." It failed on a 32-60 vote. Any changes to the treaty would require re-negotiation with Russia.

Click here to see how your senator voted.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he wants a vote on START before lawmakers walk away from Washington this week for the Christmas holiday and break before the 112th Congress is sworn in in January.

While the Senate moved from START to confirmation of a circuit court judge on Sunday , the Senate will convene Monday for more debate on the treaty before retreating into a closed session on the issue.

While Democrats try to set up a vote to ratify the treaty by Tuesday, several Republicans say there's no way they will vote for it until the Russians indicate they understand the U.S. will not link its missile defense to the strategic offensive weapons that would be taken out of the arsenal.

"You want to create chaos in the world, sign a treaty where everybody thinks the world is safer and down the road then withdraw because we intend to do something they don't want us to do. I need to know the answer to that," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CBS' "Face the Nation. "Our military leaders are not in line with asking to give me the Russian view, I want the Russians to tell me their view of our ability to build a strategic missile defense and we can wait to next year."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he too will not support ratification. He made no prediction about the treaty's success or failure if it comes to a vote, and said many Republicans are just now getting deeply involved in the issue.

"Members are uneasy about it, don't feel thoroughly familiar with it, and I think we would have been a lot better off to take our time," McConnell said on CNN. "Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us. ... I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me."

McConnell's remarks didn't surprise the White House. 

"We respect Senator McConnell's view, but we were not surprised by it, and certainly were not counting on his support to achieve Senate approval," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Fox News.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a leading opponent of the treaty said Republican were warned after an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., failed on Saturday on a 59-37 vote that Democrats leading the debate will not permit an amendment to the treaty. 

"Well what are we going through this exercise then for?" Kyl asked. 

Kyl said the treaty negotiated by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev links missile defense and strategic offensive weapons for the first time since then-President successfully separated the two when he negotiated the first START with Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev.

The days leading to Sunday's debate marked the same length of time the first START took to approve in the Senate, which must ratify any foreign treaties by a two-thirds majority. Noting the length of debate , Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin predicted START would get the votes needed to pass. 

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a supporter of the treaty, said several Republicans will support ratification and he believes the votes are there. 

"The problem is getting to that final vote," Lugar said on ABC's "This Week."

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the same program that the general in charge of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency says "unequivocally" there's no restraint to missile defense in the treaty.

"There is not legal binding statement whatsoever. There's a sort-of statement that for political purposes was necessary to achieve what we achieved. The important thing is the Russians wanted to have a binding statement precluding us from having a missile defense. There is nothing in there that restricts our missile defense system," Kerry said. 

Kyl, who argued that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is concerned by the language in the preamble, said he's not satisfied with President Obama's pledge to construct a missile defense system in Europe, which the president negotiated last year after the Russian Federation objected to a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Tell it to the Russians, send a letter to the Russians. In fact, change the preamble to the treaty, which would eliminate any doubt about the issue," Kyl said. 

The treaty is a foreign policy priority for Obama that would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. There's also a system for monitoring and verification.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.