By Ross Colvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Republican in the Senate denied on Sunday he was obstructing ratification of a new nuclear arms deal with Russia, saying Congress had bigger issues to work on before its Christmas recess.
Jon Kyl, the lead Republican negotiator on the New START treaty in the Senate, has exasperated the White House with his objections to the deal despite widespread support for it, including from the Pentagon, former Republican national security officials, European allies and arms control experts.
After negotiations with Kyl, the Obama administration agreed to spend more money to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but the senator told NBC's "Meet the Press" he still had a number of other concerns the Senate would not have time to deal with in the three weeks before the holiday recess.
He said the treaty was not a high priority for Congress, which returns this week after taking its Thanksgiving holiday break. More pressing priorities, he said, were a spending bill to allow the government to keep running and deciding whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, due to expire at the end of December.
"There is not a time pressure to do this now as opposed to two months from now," Kyl said.
President Barack Obama has pointed to the treaty as a cornerstone of his efforts to improve relations with Russia. Failure to ratify it could make Russia more reluctant to cooperate on Iran and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have warned.
The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, commits the United States and Russia to cutting deployed nuclear weapons by about 30 percent -- to no more than 1,550 -- within seven years. It also includes verification measures.
Obama says the treaty is vital because it allows U.S. inspectors to gather accurate intelligence about the state of Russia's nuclear weapons stockpile.
THREAT TO U.S. SECURITY
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told "Meet the Press" the Senate's failure to pass the treaty "immediately" would pose a danger to U.S. national security. "While we wait, there will be no inspectors on the ground in Russia," he said.
He was still hopeful Republicans and Democrats could reach a deal that would allow the treaty to be ratified soon.
The Washington Post reported, however, that the Obama administration is trying to go around Kyl to win the votes of other Republicans in the Senate.
"We have always been talking to and approaching a number of other Republicans who we think would be persuadable and open to voting for the treaty. We are going to need a minimum number of Republicans to get to 67 (votes)," a senior administration official told Reuters.
Asked whether Obama would make any public statements in the coming days to press his case for ratification, the official said: "Stay tuned."
The administration is keen to get the deal ratified before the end of the year, because when Congress reconvenes in the new year Democrats will have a slimmed-down majority in the Senate. The party took a beating in November elections that also cost it control of the House of Representatives.
(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon, editing by Philip Barbara and Todd Eastham)