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Will Senate Republicans support the new U.S.-Russia nuke treaty?

Now that President Obama has announced the completion of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the main question becomes: Will Senate Republicans support it? If the most recent letter  from Senate GOP leadership is any indication, not very likely. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Minority Whip Jon ...

Now that President Obama has announced the completion of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the main question becomes: Will Senate Republicans support it?

If the most recent letter  from Senate GOP leadership is any indication, not very likely. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ. and obtained exclusively by The Cable, makes it clear that they don't view the compromise the administration reached on missile defense for the new treaty as acceptable.

Now that President Obama has announced the completion of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the main question becomes: Will Senate Republicans support it?

If the most recent letter  from Senate GOP leadership is any indication, not very likely. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ. and obtained exclusively by The Cable, makes it clear that they don’t view the compromise the administration reached on missile defense for the new treaty as acceptable.

The details of the missile defense language in the treaty weren’t in any of the speeches or releases the White House put out on Friday, but The Cable got all the info from Senate Foreign Relations ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, on Wednesday, who got them from Obama himself. The treaty text won’t include any reference to missile defense, but both sides will express their "opinions" about the linkage between the treaty and missile defense in the preamble, Lugar said.

That is almost exactly the original understanding that Obama and Medvedev agreed upon during their July meeting in Moscow and enshrined in the joint understanding they issued at the time. The administration can rightly claim a victory on this point, having held firm against Russian attempts to put the language in the actual text.

But that still might not be enough to satisfy Republicans on the Hill.

"As you know, it is highly unlikely that the Senate would ratify a treaty that includes such a linkage, including a treaty that includes unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors as missile defense decisions are made," wrote McConnell and Kyl.

Kyl has been saying similar things for months, but the addition of McConnell signals that this could become the official GOP position. Informed administration sources said they don’t believe that McConnell has yet made a decision on whether or not to try to jam up the treaty as part of his overall drive to thwart any successes for the Obama presidency.

So bottom line, the jury is still out.

The administration’s argument on the point is clear. "The Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or current or planned United States long-range conventional strike capabilities," a White House fact sheet reads.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton diplomatically avoided a direct question about missile defense at this morning’s briefing.

"We’re focused on ratification, we’re going to engage deeply and broadly with all members of the Senate," she said. "We’re confident we’ll be able to make the case for ratification."

She also pointed out that almost all previous arms reductions treaty garnered overwhelming support in the Senate. "There should be very broad, bipartisan support," Clinton said.

Gates said the United States will continue to engage Russia to try to make them a "participant" in the U.S. missile defense scheme in Europe.

Lugar intends to support the treaty and said he hopes the extensive congressional consultations and hearings will bring reluctant Republicans along. But he also said he doesn’t expect a Senate vote on the new START agreement until after the August congressional recess, which means probably not until after the elections, when even more GOP votes could be present.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, released a statement this morning pleading for bipartisan support:

"I know there has been a partisan breakdown in recent years, but we can renew the Senate’s bipartisan tradition on arms control and approve ratification of this new treaty in 2010. I know that can happen. This is a moment for statesmanship. As soon as the President sends the agreement to the Senate, we will appeal to all our colleagues to set aside preconceptions and partisanship and consider the treaty on its merits. We can’t squander this opportunity to reset both our relations with Russia and our role as the world leader on nuclear nonproliferation. This is a major commitment by both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and an important step in solidifying our relationship with Russia. Let’s get it done."

As reported here before, Obama and Russian President Medvedev will meet April 8 in Prague to sign the new treaty. For more "key facts" about the agreement, read this.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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