The Senate voted Wednesday to begin debating a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in a test vote that signals the treaty — which would cut the number of nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia have deployed —has enough support to be ratified.
The 66-32 vote on the so-called New START, and an earlier 81-19 vote in favor of a broad tax-cut package, marked a rare outbreak of bipartisanship at a time when tempers ran high and time ran short on the 111th Congress.
Things got so heated that lawmakers exchanged barbs on who best understood the meaning of Christmas. Republicans complained that Democrats were forcing the schedule perilously close to the Christian holiday.
"I do not need to hear the sanctimonious lectures of Sens. Kyl and DeMint to remind me of what Christmas means," shot back Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who has packed the last-minute schedule full of controversial issues and has threatened to keep lawmakers working to the very last day. He was referring to Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
In retaliation for the loaded calendar, several Republican senators have said they will insist that the clerk read the entire 1,924-page spending bill Democrats unveiled just this week - a move that could block the floor for days. The GOP says Democrats are overplaying their hand in a lame-duck session by trying to jam the spending through Congress.
But at least for one day, bipartisan coalitions made progress on big issues, including the arms-reduction treaty that President Obama desperately wants to see ratified as a year-end foreign-policy coup.
The 66 votes to begin debate on the treaty show backers are just one shy of the 67 needed to secure ratification, and Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, who was absent for Wednesday's vote, is expected to support the treaty. In addition, several Republicans who voted against starting debate said they still could support final ratification.
"We have the opportunity not only to demonstrate our leadership to the world; we have the opportunity to demonstrate our leadership to the American people," said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The treaty would require the U.S. and Russia to reduce their deployed nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads each, and would limit missiles and other delivery vehicles.
But some Republicans said they read the treaty's preamble to control U.S. missile-defense decisions.
Republicans also said they fear Russia will cheat and that the treaty's verification requirements are too weak. They said the classified information pertaining the treaty should be read by all senators before a vote.
"I don't know how many of you have seen former [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin singing 'Blueberry Hill' on the news, and I don't know if you've looked in his eyes and found trust and confidence or not. But I'm not ready to go there," said Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican. "As a matter of fact, I think I would probably sing back a country-western song saying the bridge of trust and verification is washed out, I can't swim, and the treaty's on the other side."
The GOP said there's not enough time to consider the treaty and debate amendments this year.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who voted against beginning the debate Wednesday, said he would support the treaty if lawmakers had enough time to properly consider the measure.
"There's been plenty of time to do these issues. Yet we have a lame-duck session where the majority seems to be insisting on an encore, where there were boos for the concert," he said.
Mr. Kerry said lawmakers can have a debate, but in the end, he'll try to block any changes to the treaty because that could destroy the agreement.
"We are not going to amend the treaty itself, and we are not going to accept any amendments to the resolution that would kill this treaty. New START is too important to be killed by a thousand cuts on the Senate floor," he said.
He made the comments late in the day, after the disagreement on the schedule bumping up against Christmas - an exchange that underscored just how heated things have become as Democrats seek to check off a long list of items in the short time before Republicans take control of the House in the next Congress and put many of those items out of Democrats' reach.
"The mines don't shut down in Nevada on Christmas. People work," Mr. Reid said. "It's offensive to me and millions of working Americans across this country for any senator to suggest that working through the Christmas holidays is somehow sacrilegious."
He said he will insist that the Senate stay until it votes on the $1.1 trillion spending bill, on a bill to repeal a ban on gay troops serving openly in the military, and on the Dream Act, a bill to legalize hundreds of thousands of illegal-immigrant children and young adults.
But Republicans said pushing all of that legislation shortchanges senators' chances to offer amendments and does a disservice to the democratic process by pushing so much in a lame-duck Congress, with many lawmakers still serving despite having lost re-election bids.
They also took umbrage to Mr. Reid's lecture on Christmas, arguing that last year's Senate vote on Christmas Eve to pass the health care bill is evidence for how bungled things can get.
"We've worked over the Christmas holidays, but I don't think it's desirable if one considers the needs of our constituents to occasionally see us back home, the needs of our families," said Mr. Kyl. "And yes, I did say that I thought it was disrespectful."
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