New arms treaty with Russia passes key hurdle, advances to ratification vote

A stern President Barack Obama says it is a 'national security imperative' for the Senate to ratify a pending nuclear arms treaty with Russia before ending its work this year.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 4:18 PM

The Senate took a key step Tuesday toward ratifying a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, voting 67 to 28 to end debate on the matter and proceed to a final vote.

The "cloture" vote indicated that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), one of the Obama administration's highest priorities, is all but certain to be ratified when the Senate holds a final vote, expected as soon as Wednesday.

"This treaty will make America safer and restore our leadership in global efforts to stop nuclear proliferation," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement after the vote. He said he was "encouraged" by Republican support for the treaty and expressed hope that "when the Senate votes tomorrow on ratification, we will send a powerful statement about America's commitment to nonproliferation with a strong bipartisan vote."

Tuesday's crucial vote advancing the treaty came after several Republican senators publicly declared their support, apparently putting the pact over the top despite the objections of the Senate's top two GOP leaders and the bulk of their caucus. The Republican declarations of support followed intense last-minute efforts by administration officials, senior military leaders and other advocates of the pact to ensure its passage on grounds that it enhances U.S. national security and nonproliferation interests.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation's top military officer, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates appealed to the Senate to approve the treaty.

In floor speeches before Tuesday's vote, two Republicans from Tennessee - Sen. Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking GOP leader in the chamber, and Bob Corker - announced their support for the pact.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) issued a statement declaring her backing for ratification, and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) gave a floor speech reaffirming that he would vote for the pact.

Alexander and Corker were the eighth and ninth Republicans to publicly commit to voting for the treaty, but several others had said they are leaning toward doing so. The pact needed at least nine Republican votes to reach the two-thirds threshold necessary for passage.

The cloture vote was considered critical as an indicator of sufficient support for final passage.

While the White House had expected Alexander to back the treaty, he had sounded less certain in recent days, as Republicans lashed out at the administration for pushing ratification in the waning days of the lame-duck session. In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Alexander made his support public for the first time.

"I will vote to ratify the New START Treaty . . . because it leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," Alexander said. "I'm convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the New START Treaty than without it." Alexander also pointed out that Obama had committed to spending about $85 billion on modernizing America's nuclear complex over the next 10 years, a $14 billion increase over what otherwise might have been spent.

Corker said later, "I firmly believe that signing this treaty, that ratifying this treaty . . . is in our country's national interest."

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