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 EnziLiz Cheney wins Wyoming House primary Liz Cheney expected to cruise through Tuesday primary Sanford-Enzi 'Penny Plan' gets nation to a balanced budget 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 KerryTop Dem presses officials on Clinton email classification Clinton faces decision in Trump attack strategy Watchdogs warn of 'serious' conflicts of interest for Clinton Foundation 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 AlexanderTenn. senator blasts 'intolerable increase' in ObamaCare prices GOP Rep. Black wins primary fight GOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump 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 McCainThe Hill’s 12:30 Report McCain names Britney Spears as a favorite Trump haunts McCain's reelection fight 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 CollinsPolitical bedfellows of 2016 may be strange but not unheard of Obama creates new national monument in Maine GOP senator considering Libertarian ticket MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamClinton, Trump sharpen attacks Graham: Let special prosecutor probe Clinton emails The Trail 2016: Clinton’s ups and downs MORE (S.C.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), McCain, Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiMcAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Big Oil makes a push for risky and reckless Arctic drilling GOP divided over 0M for climate fund 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 CorkerBolton would consider serving as Trump's secretary of State Trump struggles to land punches on Dems over ISIS GOP senator: Trump calling Obama ISIS founder 'went far too far' MORE (R-Tenn.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonFeds propose forcing speed limits on large trucks, buses Cruz, Lee question legality of Iran payment GOP senator: Obama 'hid' Iran payment from Congress 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 FeinsteinCelebrating the contributions of the National Park Service at its centennial France, Germany push for encryption limits Lochte apologizes for behavior in Rio 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