With the clock running out on the lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate expects to begin voting Tuesday on ratification of the Strategic Arms Nuclear Reduction Treaty, the arms-reduction pact signed in Prague by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.
Proponents of the bill will need 60 votes to end debate on the measure on Tuesday, followed by a two-thirds majority, likely 67 votes, to ratify the treaty later in the week.
The issue has become an increasingly contentious one, as Democrats have pushed Republicans to approve the treaty without significant changes, while many Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have accused the Obama administration of jamming the treaty toward passage without giving the Senate enough time to fully consider it.
"A decision of this magnitude should not be decided under the pressure of a deadline," McConnell said. "If it is the position of the majority that the treaty cannot be amended . . . why have any debate at all?"
McConnell joined Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, in announcing his opposition to the treaty over the weekend.
Kyl had been in negotiations with the Obama administration throughout the summer over changes he wanted in the amendable portions of the agreement. Although the White House, at Kyl's request, added $4 billion to modernize America's nuclear stockpile, bringing the total to $85 billion -- the senator remained steadfastly opposed to what he called "a flawed treaty" that was poorly negotiated.
"We got snookered on missile defense. We got snookered on tactical nuclear weapons. We got snookered on verification," Kyl said. "All of these are issues we would like to try to deal with in the United States Senate, but Sen. [John] Kerry has said we're not going to amend the treaty. So what are we doing here?"
The treaty itself, known as "New START," is a follow up to the United States' previous arms-reduction agreements with Russia, START I, which expired in 2009, and START II, which will expire in 2012. New START required eight rounds of bilateral negotiations between the two countries before the presidents signed it in April then sent it to each country's Senate for ratification in May.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved New START by a vote of 14 to 4 in September, with three Republicans supporting it.
The 10-year pact would require Russia and the United States to agree to reduce their nuclear warheads by half, to reduce the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and missile launchers, and to submit to on-site inspections by the other country's weapons experts. A controversial preamble also states that current missile defense systems would not undermine the treaty, a clause that Republicans contend was written by the Russians to lay the groundwork to object to future American missile defense systems.
After hearing Republican objections to the treaty for weeks, Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lashed out at GOP leaders Monday for what he saw as false arguments.
"I would say my friend the minority leader, just because you say something doesn't make it true," Kerry said to McConnell.
Kerry said consideration of the treaty was delayed 13 times at the request of Republicans to study it further. When Kyl asked for financing for modernization of American weapons, Kerry said Democrats provided the extra money, and when Kyl wanted more information, Democrats sent a staffer to Arizona to brief him.
"Now fully accommodated, with their requests entirely met, they come back and say it's being rushed," Kerry said.
"Is there no shame? Ever?"
As Democratic and Republican leaders sparred Monday, Russia's foreign minister warned that Russia would not honor any major changes to the treaty they had negotiated with President Obama.
"I can only underscore that the strategic nuclear arms treaty, worked out on the strict basis of parity, in our view fully answers to the national interests of Russia and the United States," Sergey V. Lavrov told the Interfax news agency, according to The New York Times. "It cannot be opened up and become the subject of new negotiations."
With the votes nearing in the Senate, several key Republicans have broken with their leadership to say they are likely to support it, including Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the leading senator on nuclear arms reduction.
"I would say the chances of Russia reducing its tactical nuclear weapons is worse without this treaty, not better," Lugar said.
Also on Monday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, wrote a letter to Kerry with a similar message.
"This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military, and we all support ratification," Mullen wrote. "I continue to believe that ratification of the New Start treaty is vital to U.S. national security," Mullen concluded.
Despite the growing Republican support, Kerry would not guarantee success in ratification, although he said he felt confident the Senate would approve the measure.
"I'll give you the vote count when it's over," he said.