WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Senate Republicans voiced objections on Thursday to the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, raising concerns that could delay efforts to hand President Barack Obama a foreign policy victory ahead of the November elections.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Republicans said the accord could impede U.S. plans for an anti-missile defense system and pressed the Obama administration to release the full treaty negotiating record to answer their questions.
"We originally were told that there would be no references to missile defense in the treaty and no linkage drawn between offensive and defensive weapons," Senator John McCain said, adding that one section included a "clear, legally binding limitation on our missile defense options."
"Why did the administration agree to this language after saying they would do no such thing?" he asked. "We're insisting on an opportunity to review the negotiating record for ourselves, specifically those parts dealing with the ambiguous references to missile defense."
With U.S. mid-term congressional campaigns heating up ahead of the November 2 vote, some Republicans groups have moved to put the START treaty on the broader national agenda, hoping to use the issue along with healthcare to fire up voters against Obama's Democrats.
Mitt Romney, a potential 2012 Republican presidential contender, called the treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet" in a Washington Post opinion piece. Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, is rallying opposition to the treaty with an online petition.
Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, the chief negotiator for the treaty, told the Armed Services Committee that the new START would "enhance U.S. national security by stabilizing the strategic power between the United States and the Russian Federation at lower levels of nuclear forces."
"The choice before us is between this treaty and no treaty governing our ... nuclear security relationship with Russia, between this treaty and no agreed verification mechanism on Russia's strategic nuclear forces," she said.
CUTS IN WARHEADS, LAUNCHERS
Under the treaty, each side agreed to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years, about 30 percent lower than the 2002 Moscow Treaty on nuclear weapons.
The sides also would limit their deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine ballistic missiles and heavy bombers to no more than 700.
Gottemoeller resisted pressure to provide lawmakers with the full treaty negotiating record, saying it had been done only rarely before, generally to clarify the treaty after its approval and not as part of the ratification process.
She said the treaty would not impair U.S. plans for an anti-missile defense system. The only prohibition on missile defense in the treaty bars both sides from converting ballistic missile launchers for use as defensive missile launchers.
Administration officials have testified that is cheaper -- by about $20 million -- to build a launcher for a defensive missile than to convert an offensive launcher for use with missile defense.
They also have questioned the prudence of placing defensive missiles at an intercontinental ballistic missile site, where a launch of defensive missiles in a tense situation could be misconstrued by Russia as an attack.
Although the Armed Services Committee holds hearings on the treaty, it is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ultimately will vote on whether to send the treaty to the full Senate for a vote.
That vote could come as early as next week. Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, has put the treaty on the panel's agenda for August 3.
Democrats, who are expected to see their House and Senate majorities shrink in the November elections, have been pushing for a vote on the New START treaty before the end of the year. The treaty needs 67 of 100 votes in the U.S. Senate for ratification.
(Editing by Patricia Wilson and Eric Walsh)