US President Barack Obama locked up enough Republican votes on Tuesday to ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia that would cap nuclear warheads for both former Cold War foes and restart on-site weapons inspections.
Eleven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in a 67-28 proxy vote to wind up the debate and hold a final tally yesterday. They broke ranks with the Senate’s top two Republicans and were poised to give Obama a victory on his top foreign policy priority.
“We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons,” US Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, said after the vote.
Ratification requires two-thirds of those voting in the Senate and Democrats needed at least nine Republicans to overcome the opposition of US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl, the party’s point man on the pact.
The Obama administration has made arms control negotiations the centerpiece of resetting its relationship with Russia, and the treaty was critical to any rapprochement.
Momentum for the treaty accelerated earlier on Tuesday, the seventh day of debate, when Lamar Alexander, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, endorsed the accord.
The treaty will leave the US “with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come,” Alexander said on the Senate floor, adding, “I’m convinced that Americans are safer and more secure with the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] treaty than without it.”
Four other Republican senators said they would back the pact.
Five other Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Robert Bennett of Utah and Thad Cochran of Mississippi — said they would back the pact.
“We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons,” Kerry said after the vote.
Obama has insisted the treaty is a national security imperative that will improve cooperation with Russia, an argument loudly echoed by the nation’s military and foreign policy leaders, former US presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and six Republican former US secretaries of state.
“We know when we’ve been beaten,” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told reporters hours before the vote.
In a fresh appeal for ratification, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday that the treaty would “strengthen our leadership role in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and provide the necessary flexibility to structure our strategic nuclear forces to best meet national security interests.” US Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare visit to the Capitol to win over lawmakers.
Later in the day, Democrats turned back Republican efforts to change the treaty, rejecting an amendment to add mention of rail-based launchers on a 63-32 vote and another to delay the treaty until US military equipment confiscated during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was returned. That measure failed, 61-32.
Any changes to the treaty effectively would kill the pact and send it back to negotiators.
Conservative foes of the accord — among them possible Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty — argue the treaty would restrict US options on a missile defense system to protect the US and its allies and lacks sufficient procedures to verify Russia’s adherence.
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