LISBON -- As President Obama returns home from the NATO summit, the White House is stepping up the effort to win Senate ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. It is his top foreign policy priority. The president spent a lot of his time in Lisbon sending very public messages to the Republican senators who want to stop the START treaty.
He repeatedly invoked the name of Republican icon Ronald Reagan as he sought to build his case for ratification of the pact. He told a news conference, "Ronald Reagan said trust, but verify. We can't verify right now." Mr. Obama also mentioned his predecessor three times in his weekly broadcast and Internet address. The president accused his opponents of abandoning the famous Reagan nuclear diplomacy doctrine on trust and verification.
He said the treaty to cut the allowed number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads by a third is "fundamental to national security." He has often cautioned that no agreement with Moscow would further delay and jeopardize the U.S. ability to inspect Russia's nuclear arsenal.
As he mentioned veteran Republican Senator Richard Lugar's support for the treaty, the president suggested that other GOP senators were playing politics with national security. He told his weekly audience, "Some make no argument against the treaty. They just ask for more time." He warned, "If the Senate doesn't act this year after six months, 18 hearings and nearly a thousand questions answered; it would have to start over from scratch in January."
The White House and its Republican adversaries are well aware of the Senate numbers. If the issue rolls over until January of 2011 when the Democratic majority shrinks by six seats, the White House will face even tougher odds.
Failure on the issue would also be a major foreign policy setback and an embarrassment for the president. Other NATO leaders publicly backed his call for ratification.
The president has also pegged the treaty to hopes for continued Russian support for U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and safeguard so-called "loose nukes." It is unusual for Russian leaders to comment on U.S. political confrontations but President Dmitry Medvedev was not shy about weighing in on the START debate. The Russian leader told a Lisbon news conference he hopes the president's effort "will be crowned with success." Medvedev ominously said, "If we fail to move this question forward, the world will not become safer in the end."
Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.