By Alexander Bolton - 12/21/10 08:31 PM EST
The Senate has voted to advance the New START Treaty, setting up a final vote on ratification for Wednesday.
A group of Republican senators supported ending debate on the treaty after discussion with those opposed to it during a closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican Conference. The cloture vote was 67-28.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday morning a final ratification vote could come on Wednesday.
“I’ve had conversations with Sen. Kerry and Sen. Kyl, and I think there is a way we can complete this some time tomorrow,” Reid said, referring to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the lead GOP critic of the treaty.
The Senate will next vote on several amendments to the treaty’s resolution for ratification, the vehicle for ratifying the treaty. Amendments would convey the sense of the Senate on the issue but would not change the substance of the treaty or its preamble.
“Today’s bipartisan vote clears a significant hurdle in the Senate. We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons," Kerry said in a statement after the vote. "We’ve spent months building toward this moment. In these final hours of debate, Sen. [Richard] Lugar and I are joined by so many senators who understand the significance of this moment. Together, we will do our very best to convince those who remain undecided that ratifying New START is the right step for our national security."
Kerry told reporters Tuesday afternoon he would prefer not to amend the resolution for ratification but could accept a few Republican amendments.
“I don’t think it needs amending at this point but there are a couple of things we’re prepared to accept, with a few changes, and we’re working on them,” Kerry said.
Kerry said he is working with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on amendments related to the development of a U.S. missile defense system.
On Tuesday, Kerry released a letter from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pledging the full support of military leaders for the treaty.
Mullen’s argument resonated with GOP senators who voted to advance it.
“Support for the treaty should not be viewed through the lens of being liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, but rather what is in the best interests of our national security,” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said shortly before the vote.
Before Tuesday's vote, at least 11 Republicans signaled they would support final ratification.
The treaty between the U.S. and Russia would limit each side to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.
It would also limit each nation to 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBMs, submarine ballistic missiles and bombers equipped for nuclear armament. Each side could not deploy more than 700 ICBMs, submarine launchers and heavy bombers, less than the number of strategic nuclear vehicles allowed under the old START Treaty.
The U.S. has been unable to inspect Russia’s nuclear arsenal since the original START treaty expired in December of last year.
New START would allow on-site inspections, data exchanges and require regular notifications related to strategic offensive arms.
The treaty would be effective for 10 years.
President Obama sent letters to Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pledging his commitment to modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal in a bid to secure their support.
“I recognize that nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term, in addition to this one-year budget increase,” Obama wrote. “That is my commitment to the Congress — that my administration will purse these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president.”
Cochran and Alexander announced before the vote to end debate on the treaty that they would support ratification.
Obama sent a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) over the weekend to assure Republicans that his administration is committed to developing missile defense systems.
Lugar (R-Ind.), Voinovich, Cochran and Alexander voted to end a filibuster of the treaty. GOP Sens. Robert Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Corker also voted in favor.
Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), another Republican who said he was leaning in favor the treaty, missed the vote, as did Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Several Republicans, including Kyl and McCain, have criticized the preamble of the treaty, which links restrictions on strategic nuclear to missile defense systems. They worry the language could hinder the development of a defensive anti-ballistic missile shield.
This story was updated at 4:30 p.m.