WASHINGTON — An agreement between the United States and Russia to slash their nuclear arsenals was in danger of collapse Tuesday after an influential Republican senator said it should not be voted on this year.
With a terse statement, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., dealt a major setback to President Barack Obama's efforts to improve ties with Russia and to his broader strategy for reducing nuclear arms worldwide. The treaty, known as New START, had been seen as one of Obama's top foreign policy accomplishments.
Without the support of Kyl, the leading Republican voice on the treaty, Democrats have little hope of securing at least eight Republican votes, the minimum they would need for ratification in the Senate. His stance, unless reversed, would delay the vote until the newly elected Senate, with an expanded Republican minority, is sworn in next year. Democrats would then need the support of at least 14 Republicans.
The White House has been trying to avoid a vote next year, knowing that ratification could slip out of reach in the face of opposition to the treaty from most Republicans and an increasingly partisan political environment.
At a minimum, a 2011 vote would probably set the treaty back for months, because Republicans are likely to demand new hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee so that newly elected lawmakers could be briefed.
Following the setback, Vice President Joe Biden warned that a failure to approve the treaty this year would endanger national security. He pointed out that the treaty would renew U.S. authority that expired last year to inspect Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Senate Democrats were holding out hope. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that he had discussed the issue with Kyl on Tuesday and believed the door was still open to a vote before the end of the year.
"Ratifying New START is not a political choice, it's a national security imperative," Kerry said.
Republicans have argued that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options and does not provide adequate procedures to verify that Russia is living up to its terms.