WASHINGTON — Republicans threatened Wednesday to delay efforts to ratify the U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority, by forcing the pact to be read aloud in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate on Wednesday will begin to debate the treaty to lower the cap on nuclear warheads for both countries and establish a system for verification. Bemoaning the political gamesmanship over a national security issue, Reid said he hoped Republicans would not require that the treaty be read.
“What a colossal waste of time,” he said on the Senate floor. Reid had indicated on Tuesday that he has the votes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that the only imperatives for the waning days of Congress’ lame-duck session is legislation extending tax cuts for two years and a measure to keep the government operating.
“Everything else can wait,” he said.
The treaty is 17 pages long, but the accompanying protocol takes up 165 pages and attachments could make a reading long and complicated. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the pact in April, giving lawmakers months to review the treaty.
Proponents of the treaty say it is essential because it would return weapons inspectors to Russia and keep the two biggest nuclear powers on the path to reducing their arsenals. Opponents have asserted it would limit U.S. missile defense options and argued that it has insufficient procedures to verify Russia’s adherence to the treaty.
“Every day we delay is another day it is easier for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. “But this tiny minority of Republican senators would rather play games than make sure we have American inspectors on the ground monitoring Russia’s nuclear stockpile. It is time for Republicans to put our security before political games.”
Supporters are pushing for ratification in this legislative session because prospects for passage will dim when the Democrats’ majority shrinks by five senators in January.
The White House has signaled that Obama would delay his holiday vacation to ensure ratification of the treaty. On Tuesday, Reid threatened to keep lawmakers in session through Christmas and New Year’s Day if necessary.
“We are not going to walk away from any of the work that we have to do,” he said.
Reid said he would move for a vote on the treaty and was confident he had the numbers to ratify it.
The Constitution requires approval by 67 of the 100 senators to ratify a treaty. Republican votes will be necessary whether the vote is now or in the new Senate with a smaller Democratic majority.
Obama has pushed hard for ratification of the treaty, which has the backing of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as secretaries of state and defense for Republican and Democratic administrations.
Several Republican senators, however, have expressed misgivings that there is not enough time in the session to give the pact the attention it requires. Twenty-two Republican senators signed a letter Dec. 2 calling for consideration of the treaty to be delayed until next year.
Obama has gained support for the pact in recent days and is within striking distance of the 67-vote threshold. At least eight Republicans have signaled they could support the treaty, although with some qualifications. All 58 senators in the Democratic caucus are expected to back the treaty.
“I believe we can pass the START treaty if we get a chance to do it,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat John Kerry, said Tuesday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama made the nuclear treaty with Russia a top priority during the remaining session in part because he believes there are more than enough votes to support ratification.
“I don’t know why you’d put off until next year what you can accomplish this year,” Gibbs said.