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updated 12/17/2010 4:53:30 PM ET 2010-12-17T21:53:30

President Barack Obama's call for a world without nuclear weapons divided Republicans and Democrats on Friday as the Senate slogged through debate on a new arms control treaty with Russia.

Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona argued that the treaty would be a step toward an unrealistic quest.

"I think it's difficult if not impossible to achieve and I question whether it's a good idea at all," Kyl said, arguing that the goal and the treaty divert attention from dealing with real national security threats such as Iran and North Korea.

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Obama has acknowledged that eliminating nuclear weapons is unlikely in his lifetime. The treaty to cap nuclear warheads for both countries and allow weapons inspections would be a very modest step toward that goal.

Video: GOP proposes changes to START ahead of Senate debate (on this page)

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts dismissed the criticism as irrelevant and argued that many presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have talked about the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons.

"For heaven's sake, it's incredible to me that you can't imagine and have a vision of the possibility of a world in which you ultimately work to get there. That's the purpose of human endeavor in this field," Kerry said.

In Prague on April 5, 2009, Obama said it was "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime."

Must-do item for president
Obama has made the treaty a must-do item in Congress' post-election session and Senate Democrats have said they are ready to vote. But Republicans have pressed to delay action until January, when prospects for the treaty will dim as Republicans increase their numbers.

After two days of debate, Republicans offered an amendment, a measure sponsored by Sens. John McCain and John Barrasso, that would effectively kill the treaty. The amendment would alter the pact's preamble to exclude a statement on missile defense. Changes would send the treaty back to negotiations with Russia, which would unlikely agree.

Republicans argue that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options, a notion that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top military leaders rejected on Thursday.

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Time is an issue, as the current Congress grapples with a number of pressing items that must be addressed before the end of the year. Proponents of the treaty are insisting this Congress vote on it before the Democrats' majority shrinks in early January.

The U.S. Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the 100-member Senate to ratify a treaty.

The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200, and establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of the 1991 arms control treaty.

Supporters are pushing for ratification in the closing days of the year because prospects for passage will dim when Republicans increase their numbers by five senators in January.

Backers of the pact and the Obama administration were encouraged by a 66-32 vote on Wednesday to move ahead on debate, boosting Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's contention that he has the votes for ratification.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: GOP considers amendments to START treaty

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP considers amendments to START treaty

    >>> claim republicans are talking about offering amendments in an effort to stall the process. republicans insist the treaty is unwise. new hampshire democratic senator gene sheehen is here and joins me now from the russell senate office building . senator, what is your best guess right now? are you going to get through the treaty and get to a vote before you all probably leave on saturday night?

    >> i believe we are going to get to the s.t.a.r.t. treaty . i think we're going to get to it because it is in the best interest of natural security here in the united states . it has the support of the entire military, foreign policy , and national security establishment, both democrat and republican. those people who have tried to put up roadblocks and say we don't have time to get to this are ignoring the fact that when the senate did the first s.t.a.r.t. treat si clears ago it was much more complicated and yet it only took five days on the floor of the senate. we're already on the third day on the floor talking about this treaty . it's a simpler treaty , the wording hasn't changed since april when it was signed. so i believe the opponents are not going to prevent the majority from getting this done.

    >> the republicans say several pages of amendments. are they going to be able to amend this? if they amend it it will have to be potentially renoeg yated and reapproved in a republican senate.

    >> that's right.

    >> with fewer republicans, i should say, in the senate come january.

    >> right. the amendn'ts are nothing more than an effort to kill the treaty . that's what this delay on the debate has been about. that's what the amendments are about. this is an effort by those who oppose this treaty , to kill it, i think there is going to be enough of a bipartisan majority to pass it. and i hope so, because the history in the senate has been that foreign policy is bipartisan that partisan difference is stop at the water's edge. that's the way we ought to be acting on this treaty . so i'm hopeful that those people who may be opposing it for political and partisan reasons are going to recognize how irresponsible that is and put aside those objections.

    >> before i let you go, let me ask you about don't ask, don't tell, because there is new life to that. two more republicans signed on yesterday.

    >> that's right.

    >> and it is going to be on the floor, we're told, as a stand alone bill. that overcomes the republican objections to it being part of the defense appropriations bill . do you think it really has a shot, this would probably be its last shot at repeal for several years, given what the house is going to look like come january.

    >> that's right. i do think it has a great chance of being passed. as you point out, we've heard a number of republicans say they are going to support it now that tax cuts -- the tax cut legislation has been done and it's not part of the defense bill. and it's the right thing to do. you know, we've heard both secretary gates and admiral mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs , saying this is important, that it's in the best interest of our military.

    >> what about the dream act , that, of course, involves a lot of men and women in the military who would have a faster path to citizenship. they are already serving, putting their lives on the line for the united states . and if they get a certain number of years in college, as well as serve in the military, they could be fast tracked. most political experts up there don't think it's got much of a chance tomorrow.

    >> well, i think if you count the votes it's not clear where the outcome is going to be on the dream act . but again, like don't ask, don't tell, this is the right thing for us to do. we should not discriminate against people who want to serve this country and who came in the dream -- in the case of the dream act , who came here as children through no fault of their own. they should be given opportunity. that's what this country is all about. that's what we were born on as a nation. and so, if we don't get it passed this time, it's something we're going to keep working on because we got to address this issue in the country.

    >> jeanne shaheen , thank you.

    >>> coming up, julian assange gives new meaning to the serm

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