WASHINGTON – A leading Republican lawmaker on Sunday rejected the Obama administration's assertion that ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia is so pressing that it must be dealt with by the lame-duck Senate.
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona denied there was any partisanship behind his calls for a delay. He said the Senate has more urgent business to attend to in the weeks before it breaks for Christmas, including dealing with potential tax increases and funding the government through the rest of the budget year.
"It's more a view of reality rather than policy," he said. "These are higher priority items."
Kyl said the treaty, known as New START, is extremely complex and can wait until the Senate reconvenes with newly elected members in January. He also said he has unresolved concerns about the pact, which the administration has said is an urgent national security priority and should be voted on as soon as possible.
"My issue is that you can't do everything" in the limited time the current Senate has, said Kyl, the No. 2 GOP leader in the Senate who has emerged as the Republicans' top arms control manager.
Kyl's position has stunned the administration, which thought it had addressed his concerns. Officials have suggested he is simply trying to sabotage one of President Barack Obama's foreign policy priorities.
"There's some game-playing going on with the START treaty, and it's all about politics and it's all about trying to damage the president of the United States," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that Kyl has a valid argument. He said the nonbinding preamble to the treaty has been interpreted by the Russians as limiting America's ability to deploy missile defense systems. And, he said he was concerned that the treaty allows Russia — along with the U.S. — to pull out of the agreement.
"If it's going to be interpreted by the Russians that way, I need to know before I vote," he said. "If the Russians say that they will withdraw from the treaty if we develop strategic missile defense systems, I need to know that. If they that it doesn't mean that, then I think we're a lot closer to the treaty being enacted."
Administration officials and Democrats have appealed for Kyl to drop his objections to considering START, maintaining that the United States would be less safe until the treaty were ratified. Without it, as of next week, the U.S. will have had no weapons inspectors in Russia to verify cuts in its nuclear arsenal since the last treaty expired in 2009.
"We live in a dangerous world," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "The failure of the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty immediately is going to cause a danger to the United States and its security."
"There is no excuse for us to ignore this responsibility and to say we'll wait several months," he said. "While we wait, there will be no inspectors on the ground in Russia to make sure that their nuclear weapons are safe and treaty compliant."
Rose Gottemoeller, one of the State Department's negotiator for the treaty, said START is "first and foremost" a U.S. national security interest. "It begins with the fact that it is our best way to predict what's going on with Russian nuclear weapons."
Obama sees the treaty as an opening for improved relations with Russia and has argued that it is essential for U.S. national security. It would reduce U.S. and Russian limits on strategic warheads and set up new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other's arsenals to verify compliance.
Republicans have called those verifications procedures inadequate and contended that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options. Most Republican senators probably would vote against the treaty. Others have said they would follow Kyl's lead.
Kyl has argued that it does not make sense to reduce U.S. warheads until more is done to maintain and modernize the remaining arsenal. To answer Kyl's concerns, the administration last week delivered a proposal to significantly boost funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.
Kyl and Durbin spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press." McCaskill and Graham were on "Fox News Sunday" and Gottemoeller appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal."