US President Barack Obama took a step toward a major foreign policy victory as the Senate began debate on a US-Russia nuclear pact.
The move by Senate Democrats to bring the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty up for debate reflected confidence that they could deliver approval just weeks after the pact appeared stalled.
Ratification of the treaty along with a tax deal with Republicans nearing approval would represent major victories for Obama on both his top foreign and -domestic -legislative priorities just weeks after his Democratic party suffered steep losses in congressional elections.
The White House and senior Democrats expressed confidence on Wednesday that they had the two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, needed for ratification in the Senate. In a fresh sign of momentum, Democrats easily prevailed, 66-32, to move forward on the pact, winning the support of nine Republicans. Among them was Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 presidential rival and a top lawmaker on national security issues.
Still, several Republicans, led by Senator Jon Kyl, objected to considering the treaty in the waning days of Congress’ short year-ending session, saying the Senate should wait until next year. Senators Lamar Alexander and Saxby Chambliss said they could support the treaty, but not under the current timetable. Alexander told reporters it was “reckless.”
In a positive sign for the treaty’s prospects, Republicans backed down on a threat that it would be read in its entirety on the Senate floor, which could have caused significant delay.
Obama has said he is prepared to put off his holiday vacation travel until the treaty is completed, elevating the measure to year-end, must-do status along with the tax deal he cut with Republicans. Democrats are determined to push the treaty through the Senate in hopes of giving Obama a foreign policy victory before the Republicans take more power next year.
“We believe we should stay here as long as it takes to get this treaty ratified, and we are prepared to do so,” said the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat John Kerry.
Speaking for the treaty before Democrats took their turn, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a senior Senate voice on nuclear matters, said the treaty “will enable American inspection teams to return to Russia to collect data on the Russian arsenal and verify Russian compliance. These inspections greatly reduce the possibility that we will be surprised by Russian nuclear deployments or advancements.”
US weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of the 1991 arms control treaty.