WASHINGTON — The Senate's Republican leader said Sunday he would oppose a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, damaging prospects for President Barack Obama's foreign policy priority in the final days of the postelection Congress. Top Democrats still expressed confidence the Senate would ratify the accord by year's end.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized the treaty's verification system and expressed concern that the pact would limit U.S. missile defense options even though Obama insisted Saturday that the treaty imposes no restrictions on missile defense.
"Rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us," McConnell said on CNN's "State of the Union" a few hours before debate on the treaty resumed Sunday, the fifth day of consideration of the pact. "I think that was not the best way to get the support of people like me."
While McConnell's opposition did not come as a surprise, proponents of the pact worried Sunday about how hard he would work to defeat the accord. Treaties require a two-thirds majority of those voting in the Senate, and Republican votes are critical to Obama's success in getting the landmark agreement.
In response, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "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."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressed disappointment with McConnell's opposition, but he suggested in a statement that several Senate Republicans "share the belief that this treaty is too critical to our national security to delay, and I look forward to strong bipartisan support to pass this treaty before we end this session of Congress."
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Democrats' No. 2 leader in the Senate, and John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in news show appearances that they believe they have the votes to ratify the treaty.
After several hours of debate Sunday, Democrats turned back an amendment by Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho that would have altered the treaty, effectively killing it. By a vote of 60-32, the Senate rejected the measure to add language on tactical nuclear weapons to the preamble of the treaty. Such a move would have forced it back to negotiations, dooming the accord.
It marked the second time in two days that Democrats had stopped GOP amendments, largely along party-line votes.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the accord — it is known as New START — in April. It would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It would also establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
Republicans have argued that the treaty's preamble would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the U.S. develops a missile defense system in Europe. Democrats argued that the preamble reference to missile defense systems was nonbinding and had no legal authority.
"This treaty needs to be fixed," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "And we are not going to have the time to do that in the bifurcated way or trifurcated way that we're dealing with it here, with other issues being parachuted in all the time."
While Kyl did not predict whether the treaty would be rejected or ratified, he said gaining the two-thirds vote would depend upon whether senators would be able to consider the amendments Republicans wanted to offer.
"I predicted a couple of weeks ago that we would not have time to do this adequately, and I think my prediction's coming true," he said.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and one who supports ratification, said more amendments to the treaty needed to be heard.
"Several Republicans will support it, and I join the chairman in believing that there are the votes there. The problem is really getting to that final vote," Lugar said.
On Saturday, Senate Democrats deflected an initiative by Republicans that would have forced U.S. and Russian negotiators to reopen talks. The 59-37 vote against the amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., indicated the difficulty Obama is having in trying to win ratification of the treaty before a new, more Republican Senate assumes power in January.
Led by McCain, Obama's GOP opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Republicans tried to strike words from the treaty's preamble that they say would allow Russia to withdraw from the pact if the U.S. develops a missile defense system in Europe. Democrats said a reference in the treaty's preamble on missile defense systems is nonbinding and has no legal authority.
Durbin and Kyl spoke on "Fox News Sunday" while Kerry and Lugar appeared on ABC's "This Week." McConnell spoke on CNN's "State of the Union."