Senate ratifies New START; Obama gets ‘reset’ with Russia

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The Senate ratified Wednesday an arms-control treaty with Russia that President Obama has made the centerpiece of his disarmament agenda and diplomatic “reset” with Russia.

The vote to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) passed by a vote of 71-26. The treaty received the lowest number of “yes” votes for a ratified arms-control pact of this kind, but marked the first time the Senate ratified an arms deal with Russia negotiated by a Democratic administration.

“This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference after the vote. “It will make us safer and will reduce our nuclear arsenals, along with Russia‘s.”

Mr. Obama managed in the lame-duck session to negotiate an extension of the federal budget, a tax deal extending the Bush tax cuts for two years and the repeal of a policy that prevented gays in the military from serving openly.

The ratification of New START was a final political accomplishment for Mr. Obama after a bruising electoral defeat in November, when Republicans won back control of the House and nearly won the Senate.

The treaty, which would limit U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each side, is modest compared with previous reductions between the two countries.

The United States now has 1,950 deployed warheads and Russia has 2,540, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The treaty would require both countries to meet the 1,550 mark by 2017.

The treaty also would restore on-site inspections that stopped last year with the expiration of the previous START. One concern for Republican critics of the treaty is that it allows for fewer on-site inspections, making it more difficult to verify whether Russia is abiding by the warhead limit.

The administration says the treaty will open the door to more arms-control agreements with Russia and ease tensions with a government in Moscow that was openly hostile to U.S. interests when Mr. Obama took office in 2009.

In their campaign to ratify New START, the White House persuaded all of the surviving Republican secretaries of state to endorse the treaty, though Condoleezza Rice said it would be better to debate the treaty in the next Congress.

Republican leaders in the Senate did not announce their opposition to the treaty until the weekend. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona negotiated with the White House for a commitment to modernize the aging U.S. arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons and the laboratories that maintain them. Mr. Kyl ended up with a commitment of $85 billion over 10 years.

Republicans, who also were worried about unilateral statements from Russian leaders threatening to withdraw from the treaty if the United States moved forward with missile defense, persuaded Mr. Obama to write a letter announcing his support for all four proposed phases of missile defense plans for the United States and Europe.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kyl and 25 of his Republican colleagues voted against the treaty. On the floor of the Senate in his last speech opposing New START, Mr. Kyl said he did not press his Republican colleagues to vote against the treaty this time.

Arms control specialists Wednesday differed on how significant New START would be.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said New START is a throwback to Cold War arms-control agreements signed with the Soviet Union.

“Part of the reason I suspect hawks and conservatives were eager to find fault with New START, even though it’s a modest proposition, is because it is still of this lineage and they wanted it to be the last of its line,” he said.

“None of the Cold War-era arms-control agreements were designed to address the problem of breakout states like North Korea or even third and fourth parties like China, India and Pakistan,” he added.

“This doesn’t mean we should stop doing arms control with the Russians,” Mr. Sokolski said. “The real value of this agreement is that we can move on and start dealing with these other problems; if we don’t, I want my money back.”

However, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said New START is important.

“To say it is a relic is wrong,” he said. “The weapons are a relic. The United States and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons. So long as that is the case, there is a value to having treaties that mandate further reductions through verifiable means.”

Mr. Kimball added: “It lays the foundation for further reductions of all types of weapons, strategic, nonstrategic, deployed or non-deployed. Whether further U.S.-Russian reductions are achieved through a treaty or a unilateral, reciprocal declaration remains to be seen.”

Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance under President George W. Bush, said the future of Mr. Obama’s arms-control agenda would face tougher scrutiny in the next Senate.

“The majority did a good job of jamming a whole bunch of stuff through this Senate,” she said. “But the rest of the Obama arms-control agenda is going to face a much tougher road. This includes their space treaty, comprehensive test ban and fissile material cutoff treaty.”

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