START treaty advances to debate; ratification remains uncertain

The Senate on Wednesday voted to move forward to formal debate on a long-stalled nuclear arms treaty with Russia, but it remains unclear if the votes exist to ratify it.

A motion to proceed was approved 66-32, with only a simple majority needed to pass it. Nine Republicans joined all 57 Democrats who took the vote in support of moving forward on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Mike EnziMike EnziGOP blocks slate of Obama judicial nominees Overnight Finance: New rules proposed to curb Wall Street pay GOP senator tries to tie 'No budget, no pay' to funding bill MORE (R-Wyo.) did not vote.

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"Now is the moment; this is the time to proceed forward," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn KerryEven in defeat, Trump could harm the country irreparably Obama tells Vietnam: Human rights are 'no threat to stability' Global Magnitsky's power to protect MORE (D-Mass.) said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference on Capitol Hill.

"Yes, I believe we will have the votes," he predicted.

The White House has vowed that the Senate would ratify START — a key element of its push to "reset" negotiations with Russia — before Christmas. Ratification requires the votes of 67 senators. Assuming all Democrats vote yes, nine Republican votes would be needed to pass START.

Reid reached a deal on Wednesday with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in which DeMint agreed to drop his threat to force a full floor reading of START. In exchange, Reid agreed to postpone debate on the arms treaty until Thursday.

Most Senate Republicans remained steadfast in their opposition to ratifying START during the lame-duck session, warning that they could jeopardize the chances of ratification if their concerns with missile defense and nuclear modernization are not addressed.
 
"What we all share is a belief that is not a good idea," Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the chief GOP negotiator on the treaty, said at a press conference.

"This is a last-minute Christmastime stunt that puts a major arms treaty in jeopardy," Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAmerican technology leadership: We can't take it for granted GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video MORE (Tenn.) said.

But Republicans did not say if they have the votes to defeat the treaty. By contrast, Democrats predicted they will have the votes to ratify it.

Kyl, who convened a press conference with seven other GOP senators following the vote, has proposed that the Senate take up the treaty the week of Jan. 24, then allow for a week of debate without the time constraints of the lame duck.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGOP seeks to remove funding to design Gitmo alternative Big-name donors join Trump fundraising team Defense bill renews fight over military sexual assault MORE (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, endorsed Kyl's stance in a radio interview earlier Thursday, but did not attend the press conference.

Republican Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamRomney should endorse Clinton Graham: I'm still not supporting Trump North Korean official calls Trump idea of meeting 'nonsense' MORE (S.C.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), McCain, Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Lawmakers closing in on chemical safety deal GOP chair pushes Obama official on Arctic drilling plan McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video MORE (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) voted to advance the treaty.

Of those, only Lugar, Collins and Snowe have fully backed ratification.

In a bad sign for the White House, Sens. Bob CorkerBob CorkerThe Trail 2016: Dems struggle for unity Corker meets Trump, downplays possibility he'll be VP Trump campaign to begin vetting VP picks next week: report MORE (R-Tenn.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonGOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Amateur theatrics: An insult to Africa Dem senator blocks push to tie 'gun ban' to spending bill MORE (R-Ga.) — who voted for START at the committee level three months ago — voted no on Wednesday.

Democrats said that adhering to Kyl's strategy would be imprudent, considering that the treaty has been on the table for months.

They also pressured Republicans, arguing that GOP foreign-policy heavyweights, including former President George H.W. Bush, back the treaty.

"Why delay it?" Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinApple hires leading security expert amid encryption fight Dem slams GOP for skipping vote on 'back doors' in devices Morley Safer of '60 Minutes' dies at 84 MORE (D-Calif.) asked. 

Kerry said that leaders "intend" to take a final vote "sometime this year," leaving open the possibility the Senate could take it up after the Christmas break, should Reid decide to reconvene the upper chamber.

"We'd rather lose it now with the crowd that's done the work on it" than gamble with a defeat next year, Kerry said.

—This article was updated at 5:46 p.m. and at 3:19 p.m. on Dec. 16