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Senate Takes Up START Debate as Clock Ticks for Lame-Duck Session

December 16, 2010 at 6:13 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the U.S. Senate taking up nuclear arms control in a crowded lame-duck session.

After months of back-and-forth, the Senate formally opened debate on the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia.

SEN. MARK UDALL (D-Colo.): Arms control treaties are an integral part of this country’s modern history, premised on the shared belief that a world with fewer nuclear weapons is a safer world.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-Wyo.): New START significantly impacts America’s national security and nuclear deterrent. Now, as a result, I believe that this treaty deserves adequate time in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty last April, replacing a 1991 pact that expired four months earlier.

Under the new accord, the U.S. and Russia would cap their deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 apiece, down 30 percent from current caps. They would also limit ballistic missile launchers and bombers to 800 on each side.

But, on the Senate floor today, Republican John Ensign of Nevada said the treaty is an obstacle to deploying missile defense systems.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-Nev.): The United States must be able to rapidly adapt and respond to new threats to our security. Now is the time for more flexible deterrent capability, not less. New START is riddled with U.S. concessions, from which I can see little gain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed that complaint.

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: This treaty in no way limits anything we have in mind or want to do on missile defense. So, I think that there were some legitimate concerns, but, frankly, I think they have been addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition, the Obama administration has proposed more than $85 billion over 10 years to meet demands for upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Republicans also charged the treaty is weak on verification.

But the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General James Cartwright, cited broad military support for the pact.

GEN. JAMES E. CARTWRIGHT, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs: All the Joint Chiefs are very much behind this treaty, because of the transparency, because of the reality that both the United States and Russia are going to have to recapitalize their nuclear arsenals, both the delivery vehicles and the weapons. To have transparency, to understand the rules by which that — to put structure to that activity, we need START, and we need it badly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, the leading Republican critic, Senator Jon Kyl, said treaty supporters are making conflicting arguments.

SEN. JON KYL (R-Ariz.), minority whip: Number one, we have this wonderful relationship with the Russians that’s been reset, and we’re cooperating in all these things. And, by the way, you can’t trust those guys, so we have quickly got to put these verification measures in place. There’s something that just doesn’t connect there, as far as I’m concerned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moreover, Kyl accused Democrats of rushing the vote and — quote — “disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate.”

That drew a tart response today from Vice President Biden in an interview on MSNBC.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Get out of the way. There’s too much at stake for America’s national security.

And don’t tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas. I have been a senator for a long time. I have been there many years where we go right up to Christmas. There’s 10 days between now and Christmas. I hope I don’t get in the way of your Christmas shopping, but this is the nation’s business. This is — and national security is at stake. Act. Act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Kerry, said, Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.), chairman, Foreign Relations Committee: They just delay and delay and delay. And I’m not going to stand here and listen to them come to the floor of the United States Senate asking why we’re trying to do the important business of the country at the last minute, because all they have to do is look in the mirror. That’s all they have to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president has pushed for ratification before the lame-duck Congress comes to an end. And, late this afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said they will stay in Washington for as long as it takes.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-Nev.), majority leader: We are in session, if necessary, up to January 5. I hope that’s not necessary, but that’s the clock that my Republicans colleagues have to run out. It’s a long clock. I don’t want to be here. I have got a big family in Nevada. And I would love to go back and visit with them. And I’m going to do that. But I’m not going to let the country’s work not be completed as a result of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The treaty will need 67 votes for ratification.