Nukes treaty gives GOP weapon on missile defense

Senate Republicans see a new agreement forged between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as an opportunity to force Democrats’ hand on a major security issue: missile defense.

Sixty-seven senators, or two-thirds of those present, must agree to ratify any deal seeking to reduce nuclear weapons between the two nations, giving Senate Republicans, who only control 40 seats, rare leverage.

The high bar for ratifying treaties will put pressure on Obama to finish construction of a missile shield in Eastern Europe. At the very least, it will make it very difficult for the president to limit that shield in exchange for Russian concessions on the size of its nuclear stockpile.

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Republicans are already demanding that Obama press Russia into allowing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe in return for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its nuclear arsenal to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads.

“I don’t want the Russians to get something and we get nothing. I don’t know what we’re getting out of this,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamPentagon should have a civilian chief to give peace a chance Lawmakers eye early exit from Washington Senate passes college anti-Semitism bill MORE (R-S.C.), an influential member of the Armed Services Committee.

“I think the administration is going to make a mistake if they don’t recognize the missile-defense components of this debate have to be addressed.”

Bipartisan support for missile defense systems and a reluctance among many Republicans to reduce the American nuclear stockpile could make it difficult for Obama to pass the new arms treaty with Russia through the Senate.

“I think it would be a high hill to climb,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who called Obama’s tentative agreement with Medvedev a “positive step.”

Liberal Democrats have long been skeptical of missile defense programs, questioning their cost and effectiveness.

Democrats would like to ratify a nuclear arms control treaty by December, when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia is scheduled to expire.

Some Democrats, however, argue that a new treaty would not need to be in place by the end of the year because Obama could promise that the administration would follow it in anticipation of formal ratification.

Obama is now reviewing whether to go forward with a controversial missile defense system that former President George W. Bush pushed for aggressively despite strong objections from Russia. Russian leaders view an American-built missile shield in former Warsaw Pact countries as a breach of its traditional sphere of influence.

Obama has advocated over the years for a reduction in nuclear arsenals, going back to his days as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. He wrote about his vision for a nuclear-free world and has pursued that vision as president.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, often sides with Republicans on foreign policy and national security issues, and he’s likely to do it again on this topic.

Lieberman said that he would oppose any effort to cut missile-defense systems in exchange for Russia reducing its number of warheads.

“It’s important that we not give up the commitment that we’ve made to both Poland and the Czech Republic, but also to build a system that is more effective than any of the other alternatives to protect both Europe and the United States from a long-range missile attack,” said Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Senate Republican supporters of missile defense programs include Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the top-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who told The Hill: “This is a foundation on which to have other conversations, such as missile defense.”

Lugar believes missile defense systems do not pose any threat to Russia.

Baker Spring, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that “potentially it can be very difficult” to get the Senate to agree to a nuclear treaty with Russia.

Spring noted that last month the House adopted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the use of funds for implementing an agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear forces unless Obama certifies that it does not limit missile defense systems, space capabilities or advanced conventional weapons.

The tentative agreement between Obama and Medvedev already appears to violate that provision by calling for a limit on delivery vehicles, such as submarine-based missiles and bombers, which can be used to deliver conventional payloads.

While he has yet to make a final decision on completing the missile defense program in Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama defended the project from Russian criticism during a news conference Monday. Obama said the system is intended to protect against missiles from Iran and could not counter the “mighty Russian arsenal.”

Some Democrats and liberals are disappointed that Obama did not reach a more ambitious agreement with Medvedev, calling the proposal to reduce by a third the arsenals in the U.S. and Russia “modest.”

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“I personally called for going down to a thousand [warheads] earlier in the year,” said Sen. John KerryJohn KerryIran’s nuclear deal just the tip of the iceberg for Trump Trump needs to stand firm on immigration, 'religious-test' insticts Budowsky: Ellison, Kerry to DNC? MORE (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Many people have suggested 1,200, 1,300, 1,400. Most of the war-fighting scenarios that I’ve seen are well-taken-care-of at those lower levels.”

Kerry called the level Obama agreed to with Medvedev — about 1,600 — a “first step.”

Kerry said that some Democratic colleagues would find the agreement with Russia too modest but nevertheless predicted that most Senate Democrats would vote for a cautious treaty.

“I’ll take this — it’s an important step,” he said. “We’ll go right back to the board next year.”

Walter Alarkon contributed to this article.