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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Senate Passes Arms Control Treaty With Russia, 71-26 - NYTimes.com

Senate Passes Arms Control Treaty With Russia, 71-26 - NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a new arms control treaty with Russia, scaling back leftover cold war nuclear arsenals and capping a surprisingly successful lame-duck session for President Obama just weeks after his party’s electoral debacle.

The 71 to 26 vote sends the treaty, known as New Start, to the president for his signature, and cements what is probably the most tangible foreign policy achievement of Mr. Obama’s two years in office. Thirteen Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic caucus to vote in favor, exceeding the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution.

The ratification vote was the third bipartisan victory for the president in the waning days of the session, while Democrats still control both houses of Congress. The treaty had assumed such symbolic importance for Mr. Obama’s presidency that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the rare step of presiding personally over the vote, in his role as president of the Senate. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former Senator, was on the floor as well.

Mr. Obama argued that the treaty was vital to rebuilding the Russian-American relationship, and that it represented a small first step toward his vision of eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Republican opponents said the treaty could not be adequately enforced and would undercut national security by giving Russia leverage to try to obstruct American missile defense plans.

The treaty obliges each country to have no more than 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 launchers deployed within seven years, and it provides for a resumption of on-site inspections, which halted when the original Start treaty expired last year. It is the first arms treaty with Russia in eight years, and the first that a Democratic president has both signed and pushed through the Senate.

While it will make smaller reductions in deployed weapons than its predecessors did, the treaty took on outsized importance in recent weeks as both American political parties invested it with greater meaning and turned the ratification debate into a proxy fight over national security in the 21st century. No other Russian-American arms treaty that was ultimately ratified ever generated as much opposition on the final vote.

Republican opponents said the treaty reflected a dangerous and naïve approach by Mr. Obama to the world, “a foreign policy that sends a message of timidity” in search of “a fantasy world that’s nuclear free,” as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said the treaty represents “a continued pattern of appeasement.”

But supporters said the treaty, even if flawed, was an important step in reducing nuclear arms, resuming mutual inspections and keeping Russia within a legal agreement. “There’s no question in my mind that this is in our country’s national security interest,” Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, said in an interview. “This is not one of those votes where you wonder. This is not even a close call.”

The treaty had the support of the nation’s uniformed military leaders and of a host of Republican national security veterans, including former President George H. W. Bush and five former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. But many of the party’s potential 2012 presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John Thune, came out against it, as did the two top Republican leaders in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Just a month ago, prospects for the treaty appeared to be bleak, when Mr. Kyl, the lead Republican negotiator, declared that there was not enough time to approve the treaty before the end of the year. Mr. Obama decided to wage a high-profile campaign for the treaty over Mr. Kyl’s objection, risking a large share of his prestige and testing his clout in the new political environment.

To bypass the hostile leaders and win over other Republican Senators, Mr. Obama made a commitment to spend $85 billion over 10 years to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, so that the smaller arsenal would still be well-maintained and effective. He also gave repeated assurances that he would follow through on development of missile defense in Europe, despite Russian resistance.

The final vote on the treaty came after the Senate disposed of a raft of Republican-proposed amendments Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Most of them were rejected entirely, but Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who led the Democratic effort to win approval of the treaty, accepted a few of them as side statements, which do not formally become part of the treaty and therefore do not require renegotiation with Russia.

Among those accepted on Wednesday was one by Mr. Kyl on modernization and one by Mr. Corker on missile defense. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who had been trying to work out his own side statement on missile defense, joined in backing Mr. Corker’s amendment instead.

Mr. Kerry also accepted on Tuesday night a declaration that the United States should open new talks with Russia within a year to negotiate a new treaty curbing tactical nuclear weapons, the smaller battlefield bombs that are not covered by New Start or any previous Russian-American treaty.

Russia has far more such weapons than the United States, and according to American officials, as recently as last spring Russia moved some of them closer to its borders with NATO nations, as a n response to American missile-defense deployments. Some experts consider these smaller bombs a greater risk of theft or black-market diversion to rogue states or terrorist groups.

The New Start treaty lowers the ceiling on strategic weapons set by previous Russian-American treaties, which it will now supplant. Under the Treaty of Moscow, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, each side was allowed no more than 2,200 strategic warheads as of 2012. Under the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, signed by the first President Bush in 1991, each side was required to reduce launchers to 1,600 before the treaty expired last year.

The United States currently has 1,950 deployed strategic warheads and 798 deployed launchers, according to the Federation of American Scientists, while Russia has an estimated 2,540 deployed strategic warheads and 574 launchers. The technicalities of counting rules mean that not as many weapons may have to be shelved as those figures imply. The limits do not apply to the thousands of weapons kept in storage.

The treaty must still be approved by the Russian Parliament, an endorsement that the Kremlin had withheld while waiting for the Senate to act. Given the authoritarian nature of Moscow’s political system, that approval is seen as certain.

In addition to Mr. Corker, the Republicans voting for the treaty on Wednesday were Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Robert F. Bennett of Utah, Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and George V. Voinovich of Ohio.

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