Senate opens hearings next week on treaty to reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate will begin hearings next week on a new treaty with Russia that would reduce the two countries' arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons by about a third.

The Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and the committee's senior Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, said they looked forward to "shepherding it through the ratification process."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, are scheduled to testify on Tuesday.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is due before the committee on Wednesday.

Democrats and Republicans will have "ample opportunity to thoroughly review the New START" treaty, Kerry and Lugar said in a joint statement.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the agreement last month. It is the first major nuclear weapons reduction accord in nearly two decades.

The agreement aims to reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads in each arsenal to 1,500 over seven years, about a third less than the 2,200 currently permitted.

Obama and his advisers consider the treaty a major step toward the president's goal of a nuclear-free world. The pact would help reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy.

But critics say the Russians bested the Americans in the negotiations.

Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control in President George W. Bush's administration, said last week it was likely the treaty would be approved. But he said, he hoped senators would "ask questions" first about Russian development of new weapons.

"Every hard issue in the treaty is favorable to the Russians," he said.

Predicting approval, which requires a two-thirds Senate vote, Daryl Kimball, head of the private Arms Control Association, said there will be tough questioning but the treaty will pass by a healthy margin.

"This treaty should be a no-brainer; it establishes new, lower limits on Russia's strategic arsenal and re-establishes a verification system that is essential to predictability and stability," he said in an interview Wednesday.

The White House said it planned to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification on Thursday.