Senate ratifies arms accord

Obama praises bipartisan vote, scores a victory

By Donna Cassata and Desmond Butler
Associated Press / December 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Senate ratified an arms control treaty with Russia yesterday that reins in the nuclear weapons that could plunge the world into doomsday, giving President Obama a major foreign policy win in Congress’ waning hours.

Thirteen Republicans broke with their top two leaders and joined 56 Democrats and two independents in providing the necessary two-thirds vote to approve the treaty. The vote was 71 to 26, with Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, showing up just two days after cancer surgery.

Obama praised the strong bipartisan vote for a treaty he described as the most significant arms control pact in nearly two decades.

“This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them,’’ he told reporters at a White House news conference.

The accord, which still must be approved by Russia, would restart onsite weapons inspections, as successors to President Reagan have embraced his edict of “trust, but verify.’’ Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Moscow welcomed the vote but still needed to study the accompanying Senate resolution.

Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate and announced the vote. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed the vote from the Senate floor. Both former senators had lobbied furiously for the treaty’s approval.

“The question is whether we move the world a little out of the dark shadow of nuclear nightmare,’’ Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said to his colleagues moments before the historic tally.

Calling the treaty a national security imperative, Obama had pressed for its approval before a new Congress with more Republicans assumes power in January. In recent days, he had telephoned a handful of wavering Republicans, eventually locking in their votes.

The Obama administration has argued that the United States must show credibility in its improved relations with its former Cold War foe, and the treaty was critical to any rapprochement. The White House is counting on Russia to help pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

“A responsible partnership between the world’s two largest nuclear powers that limits our nuclear arsenals while maintaining strategic stability is imperative to promoting global security,’’ Clinton said in a statement applauding the vote.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said the vote bolstered Obama’s standing on the world stage.

“That treaty was the standing of the United States in the world community, and whether Barack Obama was a man who deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who has so turned around American foreign policy,’’ Reid told the Associated Press in an interview.

World leaders hailed the Senate vote, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it “a firm and clear message in support of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.’’

The New START pact, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would limit each country’s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. US weapons inspections ended last year with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.

START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Obama overcame the opposition of the Senate’s top two Republicans — minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the GOP point man on the treaty. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican on the Armed Services Committee and Obama’s 2008 White House foe, also opposed the treaty.

Peeved by the Democrats’ interruption of the eight days of treaty debate for other legislation, McConnell accused the White House earlier this week of politicizing the process.

McConnell said national security was the main concern, “not some politician’s desire to declare a political victory and hold a press conference before the first of the year.’’

At his news conference, Obama said the bipartisan vote “sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security.’’ He praised Biden, Kerry, and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel, for their effort.

The ratification was a turnaround for a treaty whose fate was uncertain just a month ago. Conservatives railed that the pact would limit US options on missile defense, lacked sufficient procedures to verify Russia’s adherence, and deserved more time for consideration than the abbreviated postelection session.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who won the Senate seat once held by Obama, dismissed the treaty for imposing “marginal reductions in the Russian arsenal.’’

The fierce opposition diminished quickly as former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, six former Republican secretaries of state and much of the nation’s military and foreign policy specialists called for the treaty’s ratification.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen pressed for approval, with Mullen simply telling senators earlier this week “the sooner, the better.’’

Weeks after Republicans routed Democrats at the polls — seizing control of the House and strengthening their numbers in the Senate — Obama has prevailed in securing overwhelming bipartisan approval of a tax deal with Republicans, getting repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay military members, and winning approval of the treaty. The treaty capped a hefty yearlong record of legislation for the Democratic-controlled Congress, including a massive overhaul of the health care system, new financial regulations, and a food safety bill as well as the postelection measures.

The treaty vote exposed divisions within the GOP that could stretch into the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. Obama got the treaty with the help of several GOP Senate moderates who split with possible White House hopefuls, some of the fiercest critics of the accord.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney opposed the pact; Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican who faces reelection in 2012, voted for it. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin said the treaty was not in the country’s interest; Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican, backed it.