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 EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley Enzi Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump cleaning house on border security Judd Gregg: In praise of Mike Enzi 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 Forbes KerryButtigieg to fundraise in DC with major Obama, Clinton bundlers next month: report The Hill's 12:30 Report: Inside the Mueller report Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar Alexander Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Five things to know about the measles outbreak 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 Sidney McCainTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump 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 Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Collins backs having Mueller testify Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamJudiciary chairman issues subpoena for full Mueller report The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Barr to allow some lawmakers to review less-redacted Mueller report as soon as next week MORE (S.C.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), McCain, Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America 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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.) and Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonCongress punts on disaster aid amid standoff with Trump, Dems Overnight Defense: Transgender troops rally as ban nears | Trump may call more troops to border | National Guard expects 3M training shortfall from border deployment | Pentagon to find housing for 5,000 migrant children Pompeo: Russia complying with nuclear treaty that's up for renewal 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 Emiel FeinsteinFive takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback 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