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The Obama administration’s top nuclear disarmament expert expressed concern Friday over partisan sentiments on Capitol Hill that could affect the passage of a key nuclear treaty.

In a conference call, Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, told members of the American Bar Association that her office faces a complicated challenge in working with the Senate to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The agreement would permanently ban nuclear testing and explosions worldwide for any purposes.

“We have a highly charged political atmosphere in Washington these days,” Gottemoeller said. “I know we will have a tough uphill fight, but I remain hopeful. We’re working to get these facts out to members of staff on the Hill — many of whom have never dealt with this treaty.”

Like all treaties, the agreement on nuclear test bans requires a two-thirds majority approval from the Senate for U.S. ratification. In September 1996, it was signed by two-thirds of the United Nations General Assembly, including the United States. But it cannot enter into legal force until it is ratified by the United States and a handful of other remaining nations with nuclear arms or advanced nuclear programs. Gottemoeller said the Obama administration still has no specific timetable for pushing the treaty through the Senate.

“We understand that people want to get their heads around this and understand it fully, so we have no set time frames,” she said. “But we’re going to be patient and we’ll be ready to bring the treaty before the Senate for a vote when the time is right.”

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has made the passage of the test ban treaty a keynote issue in his nuclear security policy. During the 2008 election campaign, he promised to reach out to the Senate to ratify the treaty “at the earliest practical date.” In April 2009 in Prague, the president told an international audience his administration would “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification” of the treaty.

The Senate rejected the Test Ban Treaty in 1999 and its critics are still vocal. Last year, while speaking at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said “there is even less reason to support the CTBT than 11 years ago when it was roundly defeated.” Kyl expressed doubt that the U.S. would be able to hold other nations accountable to the treaty’s terms — specifically citing concern over the possibility of covert testing in North Korea and Russia.

A report this year by nine experts for the National Research Council largely rejected such concerns, concluding that militarily-significant cheating would be detected.

Joining Gottemoeller on the American Bar Association call was Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., a senior U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate every major international arms control agreement from 1970 to 1997. Although treaties are always “vigorously fought over” by U.S. lawmakers, Graham said, he believes nuclear disarmament and security is a bipartisan issue, citing treaties signed by each president since John F. Kennedy — regardless of party.

He touted the test ban treaty as an essential step toward eventual nuclear disarmament. Graham said the success of the high-profile non-proliferation treaty rested on the ratification of the test ban agreement first. But he added that an ultimate drawdown in weapons faces many obstacles — most notably a lack of cooperation from nuclear states such as Pakistan, India and North Korea.

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