START treaty passes first test

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday approved a critical first vote on the START arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, setting up a final ratification vote likely after the November elections.

The committee voted 14-4 to approve the treaty, signed in April by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pact will reduce missiles, warheads and launchers in both countries and would replace a previous agreement that expired in December.

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Thursday’s vote followed months of hearings arranged by committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and featuring former Defense and State secretaries going back to the Nixon administration who testified in support of it.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Richard Lugar of Indiana voted for the treaty, as did all of the committee’s Democrats.

Kerry and Lugar, the ranking member, hailed the bipartisan vote, and Kerry said he was confident that he had enough votes in the full Senate for ratification. Ratification would require 67 votes in the full Senate — the House does not vote on treaties.

“This is the best of bipartisanship, and it’s the way the United States Senate and certainly this committee works best,” Kerry said. “But our work is not done. The full Senate now has to debate and ratify this, and it’s our hope that can happen quickly, before the end of the year. We will work to try to make that happen.”

Lugar said the treaty was “essential” to U.S. security.

“It means American boots on the ground that left Russia last December have a chance, as we ratify this treaty, to return to Russia in the same way the Russians will have an opportunity to survey what we are doing,” he said. “The peace of the world has depended on this for the better part of 20 years. We just have to get back to that fundamental.”

Kerry agreed to some last-minute language changes in the treaty sought by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), but he said nothing in the agreement will impair U.S. intentions toward a missile-defense system.

Kerry told The Hill that he expected the treaty would receive a final ratification vote in a lame-duck session, although it is possible before then.

“Harry doesn’t think we have time before the elections,” Kerry said of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “He just doesn’t think we have time. It’s literally about the timing, and also it avoids any politics getting in the way of it before the election.”

In a statement, Reid said: "I am pleased that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed this historic agreement with strong bipartisan support today ... [and] I look forward to bringing this treaty to the floor."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a joint statement lauding the committee's passage. "It will provide stability and predictability between the world's two leading nuclear powers, reducing the number of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia to a level not seen since the 1950s while retaining a safe and effective deterrent," the two said.

"It will restore crucial inspection and verification mechanisms that ceased when the original START agreement expired last year, allowing U.S. inspectors back inside Russian nuclear weapons silos.  And it will help keep nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes."
 
The last START treaty ended in December, and although both countries have agreed to observe its terms, actual verification has ended. Proponents use that to bolster the case for ratification, as well as the damaging message that would be sent around the world by Senate failure to ratify the treaty.

The treaty’s critics have said the treaty does not do enough to “modernize” existing weapons, and makes the U.S. vulnerable.

This post was updated at 4:05 p.m.