By Alexander Bolton - 12/22/10 08:09 PM EST
A large bipartisan group of senators gave President Obama his third major victory of the lame-duck session Wednesday afternoon by ratifying a long-stalled nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
The Senate approved the New START Treaty by a vote of 71-26, while Vice President Biden, who lobbied his former Republican colleagues intensely on the telephone in recent days, presided over the chamber. Thirteen Republican senators voted in favor.
One amendment, championed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), formally recognized Obama’s commitment to move ahead with the development of missile defense systems, according to Democratic aides.
The second amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the leading Republican critic of the treaty, codified Obama’s promise to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
These amendments, however, do not alter the treaty or its preamble and will not require U.S. negotiators to reopen their talks with the Russians.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said debate on the treaty had been "open, honest and thorough."
“This broadly bipartisan ratification sends a clear message to the world: America’s leadership on nuclear nonproliferation is strong and unwavering," he said in a statement.
“This treaty will reduce the stockpiles of the world's two largest nuclear powers, preserve our nation’s ability to defend itself, and maintain vigorous monitoring of Russia's nuclear arsenal," he added. "The fact that Democrats and Republicans came together to support this common sense measure to keep our nation safe sends the right message to our country and the world.”
Ratification of New START will allow the Senate to adjourn later Wednesday for the rest of the year, Senate sources said. Earlier in the day, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and others reached an agreement to set up a health benefits program for emergency personnel and clean-up workers who responded to the terror attacks of 9/11.
Lawmakers grew itchy to leave the Capitol as the final vote approached and pressed their colleagues to wrap up the debate in time to catch afternoon flights home.
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, fewer 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 a year ago.
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.
Kerry and Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations panel who managed debate over the treaty, beat back several Republican attempts to amend the document’s preamble.
On Saturday, the Senate voted, 37-59, to reject an amendment sponsored by McCain that would have separated the link the preamble draws between defensive missile interceptors and efforts to reduce American and Russian stockpiles of strategic offensive weapons.
The treaty’s preamble specifically links the issues by “recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms” and goes on to state “this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced.”
Republican critics repeatedly criticized the language and warned it threatened to curtail national missile defense systems at a time when countries such as Iran and North Korea are developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads.
Obama sought to ease those concerns by sending a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) over the weekend pledging his support for missile defense.
“The New START treaty places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs,” Obama wrote. “As the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon last month underscored, we are proceeding apace with a missile defense system in Europe designed to provide full coverage for NATO members on the continent, as well as deployed U.S. forces.”
Obama also sent letters to GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.) making assurances on modernization. Obama noted his administration requested a nearly 10 percent increase in the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration and plans to spend more than $85 billion on modernization in the next decade.
“I recognize that nuclear modernization requires investments for the long-term, in addition to this one-year budget increase,” he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 20. “That is my commitment to the Congress — that my administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president.”
The treaty received a major boost from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wrote a letter to Kerry endorsing it.
“This treaty has the full support of your uniformed military, and we all support ratification,” Mullen wrote in a Dec. 20 letter.
“Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we in the military have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday called ratification of
the treaty a "great step forward" in enhancing U.S. national security
and said New START represents another important element of the "reset" of relations
Republicans who backed the treaty included Sens. Alexander, Cochran, Corker, Lugar, Bob Bennett (Utah), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio).
Lugar, Corker and Isakson backed the treaty in committee.
This post was last updated at 5:19 p.m.