WASHINGTON - The Senate voted, 71-26, Wednesday to approve a historic U.S.-Russia treaty that requires both nations to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
Thirteen Republicans joined 56 Democrats and two independents in giving bipartisan endorsement to the pact, which President Obama and Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev signed in Prague in April.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) appeared just two days after surgery for prostate cancer to lend his support. All six Philadelphia-area senators also voted in favor.
Obama, who had made a determined, personal push for Senate approval, said at a news conference: "The strong bipartisan vote in the Senate sends a powerful signal to the world that Republicans and Democrats stand together on behalf of our security."
The New Start treaty was the postelection congressional session's major foreign-policy triumph, one that Obama wanted badly. Vice President Biden presided over the Senate and announced the vote. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed the vote from the Senate floor.
World leaders hailed the vote, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling it "a firm and clear message in support of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation."
The 26 no votes, all Republicans, were an unusually high number for such a treaty, though Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) joked that because of the sharp partisanship of today, "71 is 98."
He praised the vote as crucial to Obama's foreign policy.
"It's an enormously important measure of credibility for the president," Kerry said. "The reality is any president's ability to sit down with leaders in another country and say to them, 'If we agree to X, Y and Z, I can deliver' is critical."
Sen. George LeMieux (R., Fla.) thought otherwise. "When the U.S. enters into treaties designed to protect our national security," he said, "we should show strength, not timidity and this treaty fails that standard."
The treaty was tough to push because its details are complex, and many senators fear that should something go awry with nuclear weapons, this vote could haunt them.
Despite a week of often sharp debate, the final day of consideration was a collegial affair after Tuesday's 67-28 vote to cut off debate sent a strong signal to opponents that their effort was doomed.
"This treaty was carefully negotiated. It represents our best interests," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D., N.D.). "It certainly is a step in the right direction."
Foes seemed almost relieved.
"This may be the last arms-control agreement for a while, and maybe we can get back to focusing on the real issues, issues of proliferation, of terrorism, dealing with threats from countries like North Korea and Iran," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), who led the opposition.
His allies spent Wednesday reiterating their concerns, and some passions were cooled when a bipartisan coalition agreed to statements that say, among other things, that the New Start treaty does not infringe upon U.S. development and deployment of missile defenses. Another change pressures the White House to provide money for nuclear-weapons facilities.
The changes, however, do not affect treaty language. Russian officials warned Monday that they would not renegotiate terms in the treaty. It must still be approved by Russian lawmakers.
According to Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a major sponsor of the changes, they require "the president to certify we don't recognize Russia's argument that the treaty can only be effective and viable only in conditions when the United States is not building up its missile defenses."
That means, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) that "we're going to continue development and deployment of a missile-defense system to defend against missiles from nations such as . . . North Korea and Iran."
The treaty vote exposed divisions within the Republican Party that could stretch into the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. Obama got the treaty with the help of several GOP Senate moderates who split with possible White House hopefuls, some of the fiercest critics of the accord.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney opposed the pact; Sen. Scott Brown (R., Mass.), who faces reelection in 2012, voted for it. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said the treaty was not in the country's interest; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) backed it. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich described it as an "obsolete approach that's a holdover from the Cold War;" Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) supported it.
In announcing his support Wednesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said he was reassured by a letter from Obama, in which the president reiterated his commitment to modernizing the remaining nuclear arsenal. A significant amount of that money would go to nuclear facilities at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., a critical issue with Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.)
"It is an unpleasant issue. No one likes to talk about making weapons, but it is a part of reality in the United States and in the world today," Alexander said.
During eight days of debate, Democrats turned back about a half-dozen Republican amendments that would have effectively killed the treaty.
"Start" stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Strategic nuclear weapons: Each side will have to limit its arsenal of warheads ready to launch to 1,550. That's down nearly 30 percent from the limits imposed in the Moscow treaty in 2002.
Missile-delivery systems: Each side will be allowed up to 800 sub-launched ballistic missiles, heavy bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. This halves the limits under the 1991 START treaty.
Verification: The treaty restores elements of the system under the previous START treaty that allowed each side to verify that the other was sticking to treaty terms. The old system expired with the START treaty just over a year ago.
What the treaty doesn't do: It does not limit warheads that are in storage, though it does allow monitoring of those assets. It also does not limit nuclear warheads intended for short-range delivery to counter conventional armies. The treaty also does not impose any significant limitations on the ability to build missile-defense systems.
- Associated PressEndText