WASHINGTON – Momentum is building for the U.S. Senate to ratify a strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, according to Vice President Joe Biden, who has been in charge of the Obama administration’s effort to shepherd its passage.

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, have indicated they are open to supporting passage of what is called the New START Treaty, if their lingering concerns are satisfied.

“This treaty is extremely important and extremely worthwhile; it continues a process begun by President Reagan,” said Biden during a White House briefing with top administration officials from the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy and State. The roundtable discussion was open to selected news outlets, including MaineToday Media.

The New START Treaty calls for both the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, 700 deployed delivery vehicles and 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers. It also establishes new inspection and verification procedures to allow each side to monitor compliance. The last strategic nuclear arms treaty was ratified by the Senate in 1992 and expired about a year ago.

“This is not a new idea, this is a continuation of a Republican idea, begun by Republican presidents, in order to move us away from brinksmanship and continue to reduce our nuclear weapons,” Biden said. “It provides for verifiability, it doesn’t get in the way of modernization or the implementation of a missile defense system that we have planned.”

Both Snowe and Collins said they were supportive of efforts made by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to ensure that the Obama administration is working toward sufficient modernization of the U.S.’ nuclear stockpile and providing the proper monetary support to do so. Kyl has been one of the Senate Republicans’ lead negotiators with the White House on the treaty. A two-thirds vote is necessary for passage, which means 67 senators would have to vote to ratify.

“Anytime that we can create more stability in the nuclear arena and the nuclear arsenal that held between the U.S. and Russia, it’s absolutely vital that we do so,” said Snowe, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence. “But that does come with certain conditions — that it’s in our national security interest, that we can verify they are actually maintaining their commitment and actually living by the provisions of the treaty.”

Collins, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said some of her earlier concerns regarding modernization and verifications had been satisfied, but she still was communicating with the administration about one final issue.

“The one outstanding concern is that the treaty does not deal with nuclear tactical weapons, the short-range battlefield weapons, where the Russians have a 10-to-1 advantage over our arsenal,” she said. “I am writing a letter to (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) asking what the administration’s plans are for dealing with the imbalance in tactical weapons. If that concern is answered to my satisfaction by the administration, I will vote for the treaty.”

The New START Treaty has the support of many top and former security officials, including former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, all Republicans.

Tom D’Agostino, undersecretary of energy for nuclear security and administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the Obama administration’s modernization efforts are “unprecedented.”

“The length and breadth and depth of the commitment by the White House of taking care of the deterrent in my view is unprecedented. So any issues of modernization, concerns that we don’t have enough resources I think are taken off the table,” he said, adding that he was first appointed to his current position by President George W. Bush.

The White House has recently ramped up its efforts, with a goal of winning Senate approval before senators adjourn for the year. But the issue has been stymied by partisan battles over what to do about the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31 and a unified Senate Republican front aimed at prioritizing economic policies above anything else in the remainder of Congress’ lame-duck session.

“It’s awful hard for anything to get any oxygen when totally, thoroughly, understandably, the American public and our colleagues are preoccupied with the economy, the unemployment rate, economic growth,” Biden said. “And so it’s not that this isn’t important, it’s just that the urgent sometimes supplants the necessary. But in this case, they both are not only urgent but necessary — working on the economy, jobs, etc. and passage of this treaty.”

The White House officials also stressed the significance of the treaty’s ratification to the ongoing relationship between Russia and the United States.

“It’s part of a relationship that has been delivering for our national security interests and therefore that’s how this treaty fits it — we want to make sure we can continue that momentum, by getting this piece of that relationship done,” said Mike McFaul, special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia.”

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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