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Obama Pushes START Treaty to Top of Legislative Agenda

Inter Press Service

With time running out before he faces a much more hostile and Republican Congress, President Barack Obama appears to have made Senate ratification of the pending New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia his top legislative priority.

Not only has he bowed to Republican demands to allocate more money for Washington's nuclear arms programme, but he has suggested that he's also willing to cave in to Republican demands to extend tax cuts for high-income households – despite record federal deficits – in order to gain START ratification.

And he's getting considerable help from big guns in what remains of the Republican foreign policy Establishment, including five former secretaries of state whose service spanned the last five Republican administrations.

In an op-ed heralded by the White House on the eve of its publication in Thursday's Washington Post, former secretaries Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell concluded that the New START was "clearly in our national interest" and should be ratified.

The five men who, respectively, served under Presidents Nixon and Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, argued that their former bosses "recognised that reducing the number of nuclear arms in an open, verifiable manner would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe and increase the stability of America's relationship with the Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Federation."

Nonetheless, the treaty's fate remains uncertain. Hard-line neo-conservatives and far-right Republicans, whose ranks will be swollen in the Congress that will be sworn into office one month from now, remain adamantly opposed to START, which requires, among other things, a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both countries of deployed, long-range missiles from 2,200 to 1,550.

It will also permit the resumption of mutual inspections by both parties. They were halted last year when the previous START Treaty, which was signed by the senior Bush in 1991 and ratified shortly thereafter, expired.

The treaty's foes object most strongly to what they claim are inadequate verification provisions and implicit limitations on Washington's ability to develop and deploy missile defences against possible strikes by Iran, North Korea, or other foes, including Russia itself.

"President Reagan knew that in arms control, the U.S. should play to win, and negotiate from a position of strength," wrote Ed Meese of the far-right Heritage Foundation and Richard Perle of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in an op-ed also published last Thursday in the Wall Street Journal.

Meese served as attorney-general and political adviser to Ronald Reagan, while Perle worked in the same administration as an assistant secretary of defence with some responsibility for arms control negotiations.

"With all the concessions the U.S. made to the Russians to secure this flawed agreement," they argued, the invocation of Reagan's memory both by Obama and the Republican luminaries who have called for ratification was "a brazen act of misappropriation".

Under the U.S. constitution, ratification of a treaty requires two-thirds of the Senate – or 67 of 100 senators – to vote in favour. In the current Senate, Democrats hold 58 seats, so Obama needs only nine Republicans to prevail.

So far, however, only Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has come out in strong support of the treaty, although at least half a dozen others have hinted they are prepared to back it, too, under the right circumstances.

When the new Congress is seated, however, the Democratic majority will be substantially reduced, and Obama will have to persuade at least an additional six Republicans to cross the aisle to gain ratification. While most analysts believe that ratification will still be possible, the president will have to spend much more political capital to prevail.

Because of the evident importance he accords to his nuclear agenda, Obama has already spent quite a lot.

In negotiations with the chief Republican interlocutor on the accord, Sen. John Kyl, last month, the White House agreed to add 4.1 billion dollars to 80 billion for a proposed five-year nuclear arms modernisation programme, a key demand of the arms control sceptics.

The administration was stunned when Kyl and other Republicans announced last month that he still had questions about the modernisation programme and missile defence and that there wasn't enough time left in the year to take up the treaty.

In a letter released Wednesday, the directors of the country's three national nuclear laboratories wrote to Lugar and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry that they were "very pleased" with the plans which, they went on, would "provide adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America's nuclear deterrent within the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads established by the New START Treaty with adequate confidence and acceptable risk."

While the treaty's supporters insisted that the scientists' assurances should be adequate to gather sufficient support for ratification now, it appears that Obama is willing to pay much more to secure ratification.

Indeed, Republicans, whose top priority at the moment is securing extensions of the sweeping Bush-era tax cuts on the country's wealthiest citizens, appear now to be holding out for Obama's concessions on that front before committing themselves to a vote on New START. The tax cuts, which were enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks, are due to expire at the end of the month.

Obama, who had promised during the 2008 election campaign not to raise taxes on households earning 250,000 dollars a year or less, had hoped that allowing the cuts to expire on those earning more than that would help cut the federal deficit by several hundred billion dollars over the next few years.

His apparent willingness to compromise on this issue in order to secure START is causing growing dismay among his supporters.

"(Y)es, the Senate should ratify the New START treaty with Russia before the end of the year," wrote E.J. Dionne in his weekly Washington Post column Thursday, "though what does it say about us as a country when the president has to offer a tax-cut payoff to get a key foreign policy initiative through."

As Obama has suggested flexibility on the tax-cut issue, however, a growing number of Senate Republicans, including Kyl, have suggested that there may yet be time to ratify START before the Congress adjourns.

Indeed, a sufficient number of Republicans have indicated their support that Congressional aides were confidently predicting Thursday that the treaty will be brought up before the Senate as early as late next week, once the tax issue is resolved.

"It's a two-step process," Lugar said Wednesday. "We do taxes and then we do START."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com.

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