GOP senators vote to clear New START pact hurdle

At least nine set to break ranks, vote for arms treaty with Russia

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, says ratification of the New START arms pact with Russia should wait till next year. (Associated Press)Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, says ratification of the New START arms pact with Russia should wait till next year. (Associated Press)

The Senate voted Tuesday to limit debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), paving the way for final ratification of the arms-control pact as key Republicans defied their party leadership and announced support for the accord.

The move to invoke cloture passed by a 67-28 vote after several days of debate and unsuccessful Republican attempts to add amendments to the U.S.-Russia arms agreement.

The Senate could take a final vote to formally ratify the treaty as early as Wednesday.

Democrats need the votes of nine Republicans to reach a two-thirds majority of 67 to ratify the agreement, if all Democrats vote in favor.

Still, it appears the treaty will garner significantly fewer votes than past arms-control treaties that were approved by the Senate with large, bipartisan majorities of 90 votes for more.

“Today’s bipartisan vote clears a significant hurdle in the Senate,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons. We’ve spent months building toward this moment.”

If the treaty passes, it will be a victory for the White House in a year of political setbacks. President Obama has made passage of New START during the postelection lame-duck session of Congress a top priority, even though he also needed to negotiate a deal on the budget and tax-cut extensions.

Mr. Obama also made the treaty, which limits Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads for each side, a central focus of U.S. efforts to reset relations with Russia.

Additionally, the White House has said the treaty is important for Mr. Obama’s program to curb the spread of nuclear arms as part of a plan to ultimately rid the world completely of nuclear weapons. Further arms talks are planned for limits on tactical or battlefield nuclear missiles, limits on the production of fissile material, and cooperation on missile defenses.

Republican critics said the limits of New START are not verifiable because the treaty permits fewer on-site inspections than the arms treaty it replaces and because the 1,550 limit on warheads cannot be detected using satellites.

The Obama administration refused requests by senators to release the secret negotiating record with the Russians, fueling speculation that negotiators had made unwritten concessions to Moscow.

Despite Republican concerns on verification, Democrats appear to have lined up enough votes for passage. Over the past three days, more than nine Republican senators announced that they would vote to ratify the treaty. They include both Republican senators from Maine, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins; both Republican senators from Tennessee, Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander; and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Other Republicans who have said they will vote for the treaty are Sens. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking member of his party on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Voinovich and Mr. Bennett will be leaving the Senate at the end of the 111th Congress.

Republican opposition to New START faltered after Monday’s closed session of the Senate on the treaty. As senators left that session, in which classified intelligence assessments were reviewed, the first wave of Republican defectors announced support for the treaty.

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