By Mary Beth Sheridan and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 8:49 PM
After months of wrangling over the future of the U.S. atomic-weapons complex, the Senate voted Wednesday to take up a new nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia, opening debate on a pact that President Obama regards as critical to his foreign-policy agenda.
The Senate decided 66 to 32 to proceed, far more than the simple majority required. But the roll call was seen as somewhat of a proxy for the final vote, when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will need a supermajority of 67 votes to pass.
Treaty supporters were heartened to get the vote of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), an influential Republican who has been courted by the White House, as well as those of eight other Republicans. New START needs at least nine Republican votes for ratification.
But it will have to survive a gantlet of proposed amendments in coming days, many of which could effectively kill the treaty. Key Republicans rebuked the Senate leadership for squeezing the debate into the waning days of the lame-duck session, with one calling it a "last-minute Christmastime stunt."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that as long as the legislative process proceeds correctly, "I believe we will get additional votes" to pass the treaty.
The White House has characterized New START as critical to U.S. national security, and it has won the support of every living secretary of state, as well as numerous current and retired military officers. Ratification would be one of Obama's main foreign-policy achievements.
The treaty would cap deployed long-range warheads at 1,550 each for the United States and Russia, a reduction of up to 30 percent. It would also reestablish a 15-year-old system in which each country inspects the other's nuclear stockpile, which U.S. military officials consider a guarantor of stability. A similar system ended last year when the START 1 treaty expired.
Treaty opponents say they want to ensure that the Obama administration carries through on its promise to spend billions more on upgrading the aging American nuclear complex. Critics also worry about the pact's possible effect on the development of a U.S. missile-defense system. And some believe that the Russians will cheat.
Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), appearing with 11 other Republican senators, told reporters that it was "not a good idea" to call up New START for debate before the Senate votes on funding the government in 2011: "There are very important ramifications [of the treaty] that need to be thoroughly considered with appropriate amendments."
Earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had threatened to postpone consideration of the treaty by forcing it to be read in its entirety on the Senate floor. The treaty, with annexes, exceeds 300 pages.
His comment brought a barrage of criticism from Democrats and the White House. "This is a new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security, and it is exactly the kind of Washington game-playing that the American people are sick of," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
But after the Senate voted to open debate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "Our view is that it is not essential" to read the document on the floor.
Democrats rejected the argument that there wasn't enough time to consider New START, noting that similar treaties had been concluded in a few days in past decades. At a news conference, Kerry noted that votes on this treaty had been postponed several times already at Republicans' request. A Kerry aide heaved two volumes the size of Manhattan phone books onto a dais; they were the questions senators had submitted on New START.
"Nine hundred questions were filed and asked and answered by the administration," Kerry said. Putting off consideration of the treaty until next year would be "a recipe for endless delay on a matter of enormous national security significance," he said.
Democrats acknowledged, however, that it would be harder to pass the treaty next year. Because of Democratic losses in the November midterm elections, passage would require at least 14 Republican votes in the next Congress.