Treaty will be the broadest nuclear arms reduction pact between the former Cold War foes in nearly two decades.
US-Russia nuclear treaty nears
WASHINGTON // A new nuclear arms treaty with Russia cleared a key hurdle in the US Senate on Tuesday, advancing to a final vote with a margin that appeared to guarantee ratification and a major foreign-policy victory for President Barack Obama.
The treaty, if also ratified by Russia as expected, would be the broadest nuclear arms-reduction pact between the former Cold War foes in nearly two decades. It replaces a treaty that was credited with ensuring stability between the countries that maintain 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I ended last year, the atomic giants have had no inspections of their strategic nuclear arsenals, a gap that worries the US military.
The pact does not represent a dramatic step forward in disarmament, but it will reduce deployed long-range nuclear warheads by up to 30 percent on each side. Republicans voiced concern that the treaty could be interpreted to limit development of a US missile shield and had worked to extract additional commitments from the administration to fund the modernisation of the aging US nuclear arsenal.
Eleven Republicans joined all Democrats present in the chamber to approve a measure to limit debate, voting 67-28, a sufficient number for final passage. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has shepherded the treaty through the Senate, predicted that a resolution of ratification would win at least 70 votes, probably Wednesday - well above the two-thirds supermajority required.
The stakes of the vote were high: Defeat would have severely damaged Obama's global standing, hampering his ability to negotiate other treaties, and dealt a setback to his "reset" of relations with Russia.
"It's one of those things in life where failing to get it would be more important than actually what you get with it," said George Perkovich, a scholar on nuclear nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Perkovich noted that Washington's NATO allies had strongly supported the pact. "We would really lose credibility" if it failed, he said.
Although Obama is almost certain to win ratification, it may be with the tightest margin to date for a nuclear arms-control pact with Russia. The top two Republican senators opposed passage of New START, demonstrating the difficulty for Obama to move further on his sweeping goal of a world without nuclear weapons. His embrace of that idea helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kerry said the treaty would pick up three more votes on final passage, noting that three supporters were absent Tuesday - Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
In a reference to the partisan wrangling that has erupted over the treaty, Kerry told reporters: "I would say to you that in today's Washington, in today's Senate, 70 votes is yesterday's 95," the sort of support enjoyed by earlier arms-control efforts.
In six days of debate on New START, Republican critics have expressed concern about several substantive issues. One is missile defense: Although the pact does not legally bar the U.S. government from proceeding with its plans for a missile shield, Republicans worried that a few brief mentions of missile defense in the pact could provide Russia with a political pretext to pressure Washington. The administration said it will not be constrained.
Some senators also said they were not happy with the verification procedures in the treaty.
But in the background was a power struggle: Republicans tried to push the vote into next year, when they will have six more senators and could extract more concessions from Obama.
They complained Tuesday that supporters had defeated all amendments to the treaty. Kerry said such amendments would have sent the parties back to the negotiating table, probably killing the pact.
In the weeks leading to the vote, Obama had committed to spend an extra $14 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, the result of tough negotiations with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. Kyl voted Tuesday against ending debate.
"From a Republican point of view, it's not about aborting START. It's about getting the best deal possible, and I just don't understand why we can't wait five more weeks," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
But the White House clearly feared it could face continual delays if the treaty returned to committee.
The Senate is expected to take up several amendments to the resolution of ratification before the final vote. Some of those could give senators a face-saving way to support the treaty, by altering a document that is not binding but essentially expresses the Senate's understanding of the pact.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to the Senate for Tuesday's vote, huddling outside the chamber with Democratic leaders to strategize and talking to other senators.
They, and Obama, had conducted an intensive lobbying effort in recent weeks after the treaty's passage became imperiled.
The 11 Republican senators who voted in favor of moving ahead with the treaty were Richard Lugar of Indiana, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Robert Bennett of Utah, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio.
New START sets a cap of 1,550 deployed, long-range nuclear warheads for each side. It trims the number of deployed nuclear-capable submarines, long-range missiles and heavy bombers to 700, with an additional 100 in reserve.
Pentagon officials said failure to ratify the pact would have forced the military to plan for worst-case scenarios, devoting more money and satellite coverage to Russia at a time when resources are stretched because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama has portrayed the pact as enhancing U.S. leadership globally in pressing countries not to acquire the bomb. In particular, U.S. diplomats say, it will show that Washington is complying with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the global pact that bars countries from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, the original nuclear powers promised to gradually disarm.
Obama has made it a priority to strengthen the pact, which has been under strain.