WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama emphatically put his personal prestige behind the pending New START arms control treaty with Russia, calling it a "national security imperative" that the Senate pass it by year's end, as he huddled Thursday at the White House with a bipartisan cast of foreign policy luminaries from previous administrations.
Obama, who will arrive today at a NATO summit in Portugal without the assurances he had hoped to give Russia on the treaty, said it's essential to restore U.S. inspections to track Russia's nuclear weapons. He also said it's "a cornerstone of our relations with Russia" and vital to their cooperation in pressuring Iran, among other things.
Obama insisted that if Republicans in the lame-duck Senate continue to block passage, they will endanger the nation. "The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," the president said.
Even as Obama spoke, however, an effort to forge bipartisan agreement behind the treaty was foundering on Capitol Hill.
A meeting between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and key Republicans, including Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the main GOP obstacle to treaty approval, began badly when Kerry was late.
The meeting focused on process rather than substance, with Republicans asking Democrats what the rush is, and Democrats reiterating that the treaty has had a bipartisan vetting for months and that waiting until the next Congress gets to work could trigger more months of delays. The meeting ended with no resolution, although Kyl later said he intends to continue consulting with Kerry.
Kyl and other Republicans have said there may not be sufficient momentum to pass the treaty with lawmakers focused on the economy and as Republicans press for assurances on defense spending and projects.
Obama said his administration is "prepared to go the extra mile" on such assurances, including supporting an additional $4.1 billion in nuclear-weapons modernization that Kyl wants.
"There is no higher national-security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress," Obama said. It "is not about politics, it's about national security."