By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new global arms trade treaty was overwhelmingly approved by the United Nations, with U.S. backing, but it was clear on Wednesday it faces a tough fight for ratification by U.S. senators who contend it could affect Americans' gun rights.
The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly approved the pact by a vote of 154-3 on Tuesday, with 23 abstentions, many by major weapons exporters.
Washington was one of the 'yes' votes, but to go into effect for the United States it must win at least 67 votes - a two-thirds majority - in the 100-member Senate. Last month, the Senate supported a measure calling for the treaty's rejection even before U.N. negotiations on its text were completed.
The powerful National Rifle Association gun industry lobby promised to fight against ratification. Several senators, mostly Republicans, quickly issued statements opposing the pact.
The United States is the world's largest gun exporter, accounting for 30 percent of global volume. Russia, No. 2, accounts for 26 percent. Moscow, which along with China abstained from the U.N. vote, said it would take a hard look at the treaty before deciding whether to sign it.
The treaty, the first of its kind, seeks to regulate the $70 billion business in conventional arms and keep weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers.
A U.S. commitment to the treaty is important to get China, Russia and other big arms producers on board, diplomats and activists say.
The United States is already in compliance with the treaty's terms because of its weapons export and import laws, they said, but U.S. approval could put pressure on other nations to adopt similar limits.
The White House said on Wednesday it had not yet decided whether President Barack Obama would sign the pact, and gave no timeline for doing so. Such a signing seems likely, however, given White House support for the pact at the United Nations.
If Obama signs, government agencies would review the treaty before the administration decides whether to seek ratification by the Senate.
"Timelines for the treaty review process vary and given that we're just beginning the review, I wouldn't want to speculate about when we'll make a decision," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
The Senate voted 53-46 on March 23 for a nonbinding amendment to its budget resolution calling for the treaty's rejection. Supporters said they were worried it would infringe on U.S. gun rights.
'DON'T EXPECT A CAKEWALK'
Winning 67 votes for ratification would require the support of all Democrats, including eight who voted for the amendment, as well as at least 12 Republicans, or a quarter of the entire Republican caucus, which strongly opposes almost any limits on gun sales.
"Don't expect a cakewalk," one Democratic Senate aide said.
The U.S. Senate has often been skeptical of international treaties, seeing them as limiting U.S. power. Among the unratified pacts signed by a U.S. president is the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions.
As with some other unratified treaties, however, Washington has implemented that treaty's terms, refraining from nuclear testing.
Several senators issued statements after the U.N. vote reiterating their opposition.
"The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty ... would require the United States to implement gun-control legislation as required by the treaty, which could supersede the laws our elected officials have already put into place," said Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who sponsored the budget amendment.
He, fellow Republican Jerry Moran and Democratic Senator Max Baucus issued a press release objecting to the treaty after the U.N. vote. It also included a statement from Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
"We have always been clear that any treaty which does not expressly exclude civilian firearms ownership from its scope will be met with the NRA's greatest force of opposition," Cox said in the statement.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would decide whether to take up the treaty if it were sent to the Senate. He applauded the U.N. vote and promised a "vigorous and fair review," if the treaty is eventually submitted to the Senate.
Menendez echoed Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House in insisting that the treaty would not affect Americans' gun rights.
"I ... commend the U.S. negotiating team for crafting what appears to be a strong, effective and implementable treaty that would in no way infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution to bear arms," Menendez said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations and Doug Palmer and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)