WASHINGTON // The US Senate yesterday looked set to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) with Russia after a hard-fought political tussle between Democrats and Republicans in which the president, Barack Obama, had invested considerable political capital.
Ratification would hand Mr Obama a third notable legislative victory in a week in which he has shown his ability to strong-arm both Republican opponents and reluctant Democrats to support his agenda.
The new Start treaty - which had the support of almost all senior foreign policy experts in Washington as well as the US military - will reduce by 30 per cent to 1,550 the number of warheads Russia and the US deploys and limits the number of launchers and bombers to 800.
It would also restart inspections of the two countries' nuclear arsenals that had ended last year when Start I expired.
Its ratification, said John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, would mark the beginning of the next phase in nuclear arms control.
"We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons," Mr Kerry said on Tuesday after legislators voted 67-28 to end debate on the treaty and move to a vote, expected yesterday.
Eleven Republican senators broke with their party over the treaty, which "leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," according to one of them, Lamar Alexander.
The Republican leadership had hoped to build on the mid-term election victory to defeat the treaty, and the often-rancorous Senate debate on the treaty lasted six days. Republican critics of the treaty expressed concerns over a number of issues, including on a European missile defence system, where opponents argued the treaty constituted a climb-down in the face of Russian opposition.
There is no legal restraint embedded in the treaty vis-a-vis missile defence in Europe, and the Obama administration has said the treaty will have no bearing on its policy on the issue. Moreover, the White House is understood to have urged legislators to append symbolic amendments to the bill before the Senate, recommitting the United States to deploying a robust missile shield and ensuring upkeep of its nuclear arsenal.
Since Mr Obama took office, however, Washington has been keen not to antagonise Russia over missile defence in part to secure Russian support for sanctions against Iran. In September last year, Mr Obama announced that the US would scrap plans by the previous administration for a limited missile defence system in Poland. The Bush administration said the system was designed to protect Europe against Iranian long-range missiles, but Russia saw it as an infringement on its own sphere of interest and vociferously objected.
Instead, the US has worked to upgrade the military capabilities of allies in southern Europe and the Middle East, including Israel - where the US military operates an early warning radar station - as well as the Gulf region.
In September, the US Congress cleared the sale of three Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile systems to the UAE, the first Gulf country to be armed with the system. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also looking to upgrade their systems.
THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the Soviet-era Scud and Iran's Shehab-3b weapon that currently constitutes Tehran's strategic missile force.
Should the Senate, as expected, ratify the treaty, Russia is likely to respond in kind by the end of the year. That would mark a notable foreign policy success for Mr Obama, who has defied sceptics projecting that the Republican victory in mid-term elections combined with the current lame duck session of Congress would see the president's agenda stall.
Instead, this week has seen Congress approve a new tax bill that was to almost no one's liking, as well as repeal the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" law, thus allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly.