WASHINGTON — The Senate Wednesday voted 71-26 to approve a historic U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty that mandates new reductions in both nations’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
Thirteen Republicans joined 56 Democrats and two independents in giving an overwhelming bipartisan endorsement of the pact signed in Prague in April by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
“We have lived up to our moment,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass.
The Senate vote came as the 111th Congress prepared to adjourn, and capped a productive lame duck session where bipartisan majorities approved legislation to continue Bush-era income tax cuts for two years and overturn the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy toward gays.
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The New START treaty was the post-election session’s major foreign policy triumph, one that Obama wanted badly. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were at the Capitol this week to personally push lawmakers, and Obama made his own personal pleas.
It was a tough issue to lobby. The treaty’s details are complex, and many senators fear that should something go awry with nuclear weapons, this vote could haunt them.
“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,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who backed the treaty and whose state hosts a major nuclear weapons facility slated to get money from the increased modernization budget Obama agreed to.
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 to derail the treaty was doomed.
“This treaty was carefully negotiated. It represents our best interests,” said Sen. Byron 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 awhile, and manye 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 doesn't infringe upon U.S, missile defense development and deployment. Another change pressures the White House to provide money for nuclear weapons facilities.
The changes do not affect treaty language. Russian officials Monday warned that they wouldn't renegotiate terms in the treaty.
According to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., its major sponsor, it “requires 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, Ind.-Ct., that “we’re going to continue development and deployment of a missle defense system to defend against missiles from nations such as.North Korea and Iran.”
The New START Treaty would restrict the U.S. and Russia at the end of a seven-year period to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on 700 strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.
That would be about a 30 percent drop from the 2,200 limit set in a 2002 treaty that's due to expire at the end of 2012. The new treaty will also permit the two nations to resume inspections of each other's nuclear weapons, which have been suspended for just over a year, a gap that worries U.S. intelligence officials.
A new inspection system agreed on in the treaty will be more intrusive than the regime that ended last year. Among other measures, U.S. and Russian experts will be allowed for the first time to look inside the other's missiles and count the actual number of warheads they carry, rather than accept agreed-upon assumptions as they did before.
But the missile defense system that President Barack Obama plans to deploy in Europe starting next year may not function properly and could face big cost overruns, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency.
GAO said Obama has committed the Defense Department "to a schedule that could be challenging to meet, based on the technical progress of missile defense element development and testing programs."
(William Douglas and Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)