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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly said that the vote of 71 to 26 was seven votes more than the two-thirds required for Senate passage of the New START nuclear arms pact with Russia. With 97 senators voting, 65 votes were necessary for a two-thirds majority, so the tally was six more than required. This version has been corrected.
Arms treaty approval a win for Obama, but GOP critics are gaining momentum

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 AM

Eleven days after the bruising midterm elections, President Obama got a stark reminder of how his political shellacking at home could undermine his standing abroad.

Obama was meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev at a hotel in Yokohama, Japan, after an economic summit. The improved relationship with Russia was one of Obama's main foreign policy achievements, and its centerpiece was a new nuclear-weapons agreement the two had signed in April.

Now the Russian leader wanted to know whether the treaty was in trouble in the U.S. Senate.

"President Medvedev was wondering what the election would mean, in terms of ratification. It's fair to say they were nervous," said one U.S. official who was in the meeting.

"That had an impression" on Obama, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

On the plane back to Washington, Obama told aides he was determined to get the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) through the Senate by year's end. "We've got to go for it," the official recalled Obama saying.

The next few weeks marked a remarkable resurgence for a White House demoralized by Democratic losses in the elections. On Wednesday, the Senate approved New START by a vote of 71 to 26, six more than the 65 required for ratification but well short of the resounding approval that most nuclear-arms treaties have received.

Republican critics cited concerns about the treaty's language on missile defense, verification and other issues. But what appeared to tip a number against the treaty was Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid''s (D-Nev.) decision to shoehorn issues dear to the Democratic base into the waning days of the session, which infuriated Republicans.

The White House strategy ultimately proved successful, but the rise of partisan passions may complicate Obama's future arms-control efforts.

Lining up the GOP

Even before his Nov. 13 meeting with Medvedev, Obama had turned his attention away from the midterm elections and to New START. On Nov. 5, while flying to India, he gathered national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, press secretary Robert Gibbs and senior aides Valerie Jarrett and Ben Rhodes to ensure they had a strategy to win ratification of the treaty in the lame-duck session.

They did - or so they thought.

For months, Vice President Biden had been coordinating negotiations with Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the point man on the Republican side, who was demanding extra money to fix up the aging U.S. nuclear weapons complex as a condition of giving Republicans the green light to approve New START.

While Obama was in Asia, the administration had secretly sent a high-level team including Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. nuclear forces, to Arizona to tell Kyl the administration would commit an extra $4.1 billion for nuclear modernization, on top of an earlier pledge of $10 billion.

Kyl seemed happy with the offer, officials said.

But three days after Obama's meeting with Medvedev, White House aides were astonished to learn from a news release by Kyl that he believed there wasn't enough time to consider the treaty during the lame-duck session.

"That was one of the lowest moments of our time in government," said the senior official.

There had always been what another White House official called a "healthy skepticism" about whether Kyl, the second-ranking Republican, had been negotiating in good faith. A savvy conservative steeped in arms-control issues, Kyl had helped defeat the 1999 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, dealing a blow to the Clinton administration.

But Kyl's main concern this time hadn't seemed to be the treaty's central issues, such as the number of warheads allowed, but instead modernization of the remaining nuclear weapons.

Officials believed that pushing the treaty into the next Congress would jeopardize its passage, since Republicans had picked up six seats in the midterm elections.

Now, the administration had to decide whether to proceed without Kyl.

The Kyl statement arrived as Biden was meeting with senior officials in the White House Situation Room to discuss Iraq. Talk turned immediately to New START. Later, senior aides huddled with Obama in the Oval Office.

"Both the president and vice president said to us, 'Look, this is too important to let die like this,' " Rhodes said.

The next day, Obama called Kyl to say he would push for New START.

The offensive moved on both public and private tracks. Obama and Biden appealed openly for passage of the treaty, with Obama saying there was "no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session."

On Nov. 17, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Sen. John F. Kerry, (D-Mass.) who led the Senate ratification effort, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican supporter, at a news conference at the Senate following a breakfast with lawmakers. Lugar made an emotional appeal for the treaty. "We're talking about thousands of warheads that are still there - an existential threat to our country," he declared loudly.

A day later, Obama appeared with four former Cabinet secretaries from both parties to press the case for the pact. At the White House's urging, other public appearances and endorsements followed from former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, former president George H.W. Bush and others.

The treaty had the support of much of the traditional Republican foreign policy establishment because it continued a pattern of mutual U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions and guaranteed inspections of each side's arsenal. That monitoring had lapsed in 2009 when the first START treaty expired.

Down to the wire

The behind-the-scenes effort to woo senators intensified. For months, Clinton and Biden had been calling lawmakers from airplanes, their offices and homes, and sending teams to brief them on the treaty's contents.

"It was real shoe-leather vote-by-vote work," said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Many of the senators' concerns were about the substance of the treaty. Some feared that the treaty's references to missile defense could constrain the U.S. government from building such a shield.

A few senators had pet issues. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) stunned the White House on Nov. 17 by declaring he couldn't support the treaty until he had assurances it wouldn't harm U.S. allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Within days, Obama used a NATO summit in Lisbon to highlight international support for the pact - including from a group of Eastern European and Baltic leaders who called for treaty passage at a news conference.

Voinovich's concerns were assuaged by the speeches, as well as by a vow by Obama to consider allowing Poles to travel visa-free to the United States.

But the treaty's prospects remained uncertain.

Kerry said in an interview that it wasn't clear supporters had the votes or "knew this thing could really happen until these last few days."

One reason: A brawl had erupted over the schedule for the lame-duck session. The administration had anticipated lengthy debates over New START and complicated spending and tax bills during the session.

But Reid also wanted to bring up other priorities dear to his constituents and the Democratic base. He announced he would push forward a bill to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and go ahead with immigration legislation.

"The administration was definitely caught off guard" by Reid's announcement, said one Senate source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was very unsettling."

Republicans were angered at what they saw as partisan maneuvering, and some decided they couldn't go along with the nuclear treaty. "We lost a number of senators' votes because of the complications of the schedule," Kerry acknowledged, adding that Republicans had told him the figure could be as high as 10.

In the past few days, treaty supporters poured on the pressure. A "war room" was set up in the Senate, with experts from the departments of State, Defense and Energy available to answer questions.

Obama produced a letter requested by Republicans asking for a firm commitment to fully develop a missile defense system in Europe. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly urged lawmakers to pass the treaty.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Biden, who was presiding over the Senate, read out the vote, to cheers from supporters.

"The president made a gutsy choice," Kerry said. "He decided he was prepared to lose the treaty, but he thought it was important to fight for."

Staff writers Walter Pincus and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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