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 EnziSanford-Enzi 'Penny Plan' gets nation to a balanced budget Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention Judd Gregg: The silver lining 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 KerryA new president, a new North Korea strategy Trump hopes Russia is listening; America, are you listening? Clinton at risk of being upstaged 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 AlexanderGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Overnight Healthcare: Mysterious new Zika case | Mental health bill in doubt | Teletraining to fight opioids Hopes dim for mental health deal 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 McCainMcCain granddaughter comes out in support of Clinton With reservations, moving toward Hillary Clinton FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton closes out Democratic convention 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 CollinsTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense The Trail 2016: Words matter Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump: 'I hope' Russia is able to get Clinton's emails Syria activists cheer Kaine pick Vulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine 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 CorkerTrump starts considering Cabinet Trump's secret weapon is Ivanka Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (R-Tenn.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense Clinton set to break ceiling GOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump 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 FeinsteinDems urge Obama to release info on Russian links to DNC hack Hotel lobby cheers scrutiny on Airbnb GOP platform attempts middle ground on encryption debate 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