WASHINGTON — The Senate plans a critical vote today on the Obama administration's nuclear arms treaty with Russia, as Russia warned lawmakers not to alter the treaty's terms and the White House stepped up lobbying.
Most Senate Republicans on Monday continued their so-far unsuccessful effort to try to change the pact — and deny President Barack Obama a major foreign policy victory.
The Senate is scheduled to vote today on limiting debate on the treaty, which will require support of 60 of the 100 senators. If that succeeds, a vote to ratify the treaty, which needs two-thirds of the senators, could occur later today or Wednesday, and supporters think they'll have the 67 votes they need.
Supporters ramped up pressure on Monday, with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writing the Senate a letter explaining in detail why the treaty is vital to U.S. national security.
The accord was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. The two countries negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to cap nuclear weapons and restart weapons inspections in the spirit of U.S. efforts to reset the relationship between the former Cold War foes.
Several conservative Senate Republicans insist the treaty would restrict U.S. options on a missile defense system to protect America and its allies, and they argue that the accord has insufficient procedures to verify Russia's adherence.
On Monday, Russia resisted any changes to the treaty. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Interfax news agency: "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."
At the White House, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden phoned individual senators.
"If there are issues in which people have questions, we are certainly happy to provide answers either through the president or the president could have other people call them," White House spokesman spokesman Robert Gibbs said. Gibbs said the White House is confident that the Senate will ratify the treaty before it adjourns.
At the Capitol, Republican opponents kept up their protests.
"Our top concern should be the safety and security of our nation, not some politician's desire to declare a political victory and host a press conference before the first of the year," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
To some outside analysts, the GOP opposition didn't seem to be about principle, not least because five secretaries of state for past Republican presidents all have endorsed the treaty. So has former President George H.W. Bush.
The Republican effort to derail the treaty is "99 percent politics," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. "You have former secretaries of state and people from the national security apparatus in Republican administrations behind this. I haven't seen anything to suggest this is anything but politics."
Neither has former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He called some GOP objections to the treaty "exaggerated rhetoric" and an attempt "to take away a so-called victory from the president" on an important foreign policy issue.
While some senators may have legitimate reservations about the treaty, Hagel said, it's time for "the leadership on the Republican side to rise above politics" and move to a final vote.
The New START would restrict the United States and Russia at the end of a seven-year period to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
That's about 30 percent below the 2,200 warhead cap set in a 2002 treaty that's due to expire at the end of 2012. The new treaty also would allow the two sides to resume inspections of each other's nuclear weapons, which have been suspended for more than a year, a gap that worries U.S. intelligence officials.
The new treaty's inspection system is more intrusive than the regime that ended last year. Among other measures, U.S. and Russian experts would be allowed for the first time to look inside the other's missiles and count the actual number of warheads, rather than accept agreed-upon assumptions as before.
It's rare for senators to reject such treaties. The last was the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999 during Bill Clinton's presidency. It failed on a 48-51 vote.
Monday, the Senate considered several amendments to the treaty that supporters said would in effect kill it. None succeeded.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.