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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Senate Advances Arms Treaty, 67-28 -

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...Image via WikipediaSenate Advances Arms Treaty, 67-28 -

WASHINGTON —The Senate voted 67 to 28 on Tuesday to advance a new arms control treaty that would pare back American and Russian nuclear arsenals, reaching the two-thirds margin needed for approval despite a concerted Republican effort to block ratification.

Eleven Republicans joined every Democrat present to support the treaty, known as New Start, which now heads to a seemingly certain final vote of approval on Wednesday, as the Senate wraps up business before heading out of town. Voting against the treaty were 28 Republicans who argued that it could hurt national security.

“Today’s bipartisan vote clears a significant hurdle in the Senate,” said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who led the floor fight for the treaty. “We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons.”

The vote represented another bipartisan victory for President Obama, who emerged politically wounded from last month’s mid-term elections but turned around to successfully press the outgoing Congress to enact several of his top priorities. At his behest, lawmakers passed an $858 billion package of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, and they ended the longstanding ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military.

The New Start treaty was the last major challenge of the session for Mr. Obama, and in some ways the most emboldening for him. The tax-cut deal required the president to swallow a compromise that extended the expiring Bush-era lowered tax rates even for the wealthy, costing him support within his own party. The overturning of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy was driven as much by senators as by the White House.

But it was Mr. Obama who decided to make passing the treaty before the end of the year a high-profile test of his remaining clout. Despite bleak prospects for the treaty just a month ago, Mr. Obama mounted an unusually relentless campaign to win over enough Republican senators on his terms, enlisting former Republican luminaries, the nation’s military commanders and Eastern European leaders to knock down any objections.

The treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles so that within seven years of ratification neither deploys more than 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 launchers. It would also require the resumption of on-site inspections that lapsed last December when the original Start treaty expired.

The White House and its ally, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, have locked down Republican votes in recent days in part with a series of letters and statements intended to address concerns about the treaty’s impact on missile defense, nuclear modernization and verification.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, originally an appointee of President George W. Bush, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, appealed to Republican respect for the military and urged support for the treaty.

In a letter to several senators, Mr. Obama repeated his commitment, beyond the current budget, to a 10-year, $85 billion program to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, to ensure that a shrinking nuclear arsenal would still be well maintained and effective.

“I recognize that nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term, in addition to this one-year budget increase,” Mr. Obama wrote. “That is my commitment to the Congress — that my Administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am President.”

The reassurances appeared to win over enough Republican support to ensure ratification of the treaty. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who last week voted with other Republicans to block consideration of the treaty during the lame-duck session, cited Mr. Obama’s support for modernization in announcing his decision to vote to approve it on Tuesday morning.

“I’m convinced,” Mr. Alexander said on the floor, “that America is safer and more secure with the New Start treaty than without it.” He said he was convinced that the treaty still left the United States with “enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come.”

Senator Johnny Isakson of georgia, who voted for the treaty in committee but had not declared whether he would follow suit on the floor until Tuesday, said in a statement: “Only through setting the example, without giving in or capitulating a thing, do we give hope to the future that my grandchildren and yours can live in a world that will not be free of nukes but will be secure.”

Republican opponents continued to hammer away at the treaty, arguing that its verification procedures were inadequate and that nonbinding language in its preamble could give Russia leverage to try to keep the United States from deploying missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. They said Russia got more out of the treaty than the United States.

“The administration did not negotiate a good treaty,” Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican, told reporters. “They went into negotiations, it seems to me, with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy that goes into the car dealership and says, ‘I’m not leaving here until I buy a car.’”

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, bristled at Russia’s warning Monday that the Senate should not try to rewrite the treaty. “The Senate is not a rubber stamp — not for the administration, not for Russia,” he said. “And as one senator, I am not ready to stamp this treaty.”

The Senate planned to vote later Tuesday on whether to close off debate after a week of floor discussion, which requires 60 votes. For final passage, the Constitution requires that two-thirds of senators present vote their approval. With Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, absent after prostate surgery, that means supporters need 66 votes. If they get that many on the Tuesday vote, it presumably would foreshadow the final outcome, which could come Wednesday.

Left unclear was whether the administration would come to an agreement with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who was trying to fashion a compromise to reassure Republicans that the treaty will not constrain American missile defense plans.

The White House and Pentagon have insisted from the beginning that the treaty would do nothing to block American missile defense plans. On Monday, Mr. McCain unveiled a proposed amendment to the resolution of ratification that accompanies the treaty affirming that the United States will proceed with all four planned phases of missile defense in Europe by 2020 as Mr. Obama has committed to doing.

The growing support from Republicans suggested that the White House no longer needed Mr. McCain and it may choose to pocket what seems to be shaping up as a victory without making further accommodations. At the same time, it may decide to come to an agreement with Mr. McCain in the interest of building a stronger bipartisan vote for the treaty beyond the bare-minimum 66. As a separate statement, Mr. McCain’s amendment would not change the treaty itself or require renegotiation with the Russians; it would only be a declaration of American policy.

In addition to Senators Alexander, Isakson, Corker and Murkowski, the Republicans who have pledged their support include Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said on Monday that he would most likely vote yes as well.

For the treaty to take effect, the Russian parliament must ratify it as well. But given the Kremlin’s control over the Russian political system, that is viewed as a formality.

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