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Senate ratifies new U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons treaty

President Barack Obama celebrated a bipartisan "season of progress' on Thursday at a year-end news conference a few hours after the Senate ratified an arms control treaty with Russia. (Dec. 22)

Perkovich noted that Washington's NATO allies had strongly supported the pact. "We would really lose credibility" if it failed, he said Tuesday.

The treaty, if also ratified by Russia as expected, would replace the pact that was credited with ensuring stability between the countries that maintain 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I ended last year, the atomic giants have had no inspections of their strategic nuclear arsenals, a gap that worries the U.S. military.

The pact does not represent a dramatic step forward in disarmament, but it will reduce deployed, long-range nuclear warheads by up to 30 percent on each side. Republicans voiced concern that the treaty could be interpreted to limit development of a U.S. missile shield and had worked to extract additional commitments from the administration to fund the modernization of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Although the treaty easily reached the two-thirds threshold for Senate ratification, the vote marked the tightest margin to date for a nuclear arms-control pact with Russia. The top two Republican leaders in the Senate opposed passage of New START, demonstrating the difficulty for Obama to move further on his sweeping goal of a world without nuclear weapons. His embrace of that idea helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kerry had predicted Tuesday that the treaty would pick up at least three more votes on ratification, noting that three supporters were absent Tuesday - Democrats Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Republican Judd Gregg (N.H.).

Wyden, who is recovering from prostate cancer surgery, showed up Wednesday and voted for ratification, as did Bayh and Gregg.

In a reference to the partisan wrangling that has erupted over the treaty, Kerry told reporters Tuesday: "I would say to you that in today's Washington, in today's Senate, 70 votes is yesterday's 95," the sort of support enjoyed by earlier arms-control efforts.

In a week of debate on New START, Republican critics expressed concern about several substantive issues. One was missile defense: Although the pact does not legally bar the U.S. government from proceeding with its plans for a missile shield, Republicans worried that a few brief mentions of missile defense in the pact could provide Russia with a political pretext to pressure Washington. The administration said it will not be constrained.

Some senators also said they were not happy with the verification procedures in the treaty.

But in the background was a power struggle: Republicans tried to push the vote into next year, when they will have six more senators and could extract more concessions from Obama.

In the weeks leading to the vote, Obama had committed to spend an extra $14 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, the result of tough negotiations with Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. Kyl voted Tuesday against ending debate and voted no again Wednesday on ratification.

"From a Republican point of view, it's not about aborting START. It's about getting the best deal possible, and I just don't understand why we can't wait five more weeks," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

But the White House clearly feared it could face continual delays if the treaty returned to committee.

Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to the Senate for Tuesday's vote, huddling outside the chamber with Democratic leaders to strategize and talking to other senators.

They, and Obama, had conducted an intensive lobbying effort in recent weeks after the treaty's passage became imperiled.

The 11 Republican senators who voted in favor of moving ahead with the treaty Tuesday were Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Robert F. Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio).

All also voted in favor of ratification Wednesday, as did Gregg. In addition, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) voted for the treaty, pushing the total yes votes to 71.

Three Republican senators were not present for Wednesday's vote: Sens. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.). All were believed to oppose the treaty.

New START sets a cap of 1,550 deployed, long-range nuclear warheads for each side. It trims the number of deployed nuclear-capable submarines, long-range missiles and heavy bombers to 700, with an additional 100 in reserve.

Pentagon officials said failure to ratify the pact would force the military to plan for worst-case scenarios, devoting more money and satellite coverage to Russia at a time when resources are stretched because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has portrayed the pact as enhancing U.S. leadership globally in pressing countries not to acquire the bomb. In particular, U.S. diplomats say, it will show that Washington is complying with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the global pact that bars countries from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange, the original nuclear powers promised to gradually disarm.

Obama has made it a priority to strengthen the pact, which has been under strain.

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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