WASHINGTON — Pushing a top foreign policy priority, President Barack Obama expressed confidence Wednesday the Senate would quickly ratify a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms pact that secured a major endorsement – former President George H.W. Bush.
The president also reiterated his insistence that Congress approve a tax deal he negotiated with Republicans, urging lawmakers to examine the details of the compromise and “get this done.”
Obama drew specific attention Wednesday to Polish support for the treaty after meeting with Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski, in the White House Oval Office.
The treaty, known as New START, has been a central piece of Obama’s agenda for the lame-duck session of Congress. Ratification has bogged down as Republicans have sought assurances that the remaining U.S. arsenal would continue to be modernized.
Obama, noting he has discussed the pending treaty with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said: “I am confident that we are going to be able to get the START treaty on the floor, debated and completed before we break for the holidays.”
Later, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “I think if they voted on it right now it would pass.”
Bush – who signed the START II treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 – added his support Wednesday with a brief statement: “I urge the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty.”
Komorowski, seated at Obama’s side, said New START ratification would be an investment in a better and safer future.
“We are not able to fully reset and delete 1,000 years of uneasy history with Russians, but we do not want to be an obstacle,” Komorowski said, speaking through a translator. “We want to be a help in the process of resetting the relations between the Western world with Russia.”
Komorowski’s visit to the U.S. comes two days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Poland as part of an effort between the two neighbors to increase political, economic and cultural contacts.
Some Republicans, most prominently Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, had expressed worries that the nuclear treaty would cause unease among allies in Eastern Europe. Obama said he emphasized U.S. determination to “stand by Poland in its defense and its security needs.”
Obama said international allies, including Poland, and “basically the entire national security apparatus of previous Democratic and Republican administrations” have come out in support of the treaty – all of which, he says, gives him confidence the Senate will ratify the deal.
The treaty would cut the limits on strategic warheads to 1,550 for the United States and Russia from the current ceiling of 2,200. The pact also would establish new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other’s nuclear arsenals to verify compliance.
In recent days, a number of Republicans have voiced support for the agreement, increasing its chances of ratification. Republicans, however, have also insisted that they would not take up any other issue until Congress completes action on the tax plan and on a a broad spending measure to continue paying for government operations.
The tax plan is facing vigorous Democratic opposition in Congress. Obama forcefully rejected suggestions he had abandoned his allies to cut an agreement with the GOP.
“I think it is inaccurate to characterize Democrats, writ large, as quote-unquote betrayed.”
He said economists predict higher job growth in 2011 and 2012 if Congress passes the agreement. It would extend expiring Bush-era tax rates to all taxpayers for two years. The deal avoids a tax increase next year. It also includes a 13-month extension of jobless benefits and a one-year cut in payroll taxes.
He urged lawmakers to “examine the agreement, look at the facts, have a thorough debate, but get this done. The American people are watching.”