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 EnziLobbying world Cheney on same-sex marriage opposition: 'I was wrong' What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling 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 KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — High court will hear case on water rule Kerry warns about efforts to blunt climate change: 'We're in trouble' Biden's second-ranking climate diplomat stepping down 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 AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate 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 McCainBiden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 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 - Biden, NATO eye 'all scenarios' with Russia Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law The Hill's Morning Report - US warns Kremlin, weighs more troops to Europe MORE (Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future Biden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  MORE (S.C.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), McCain, Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Trump sold off the Arctic Refuge — Congress must end this risky boondoggle 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 CorkerRepublicans, ideology, and demise of the state and local tax deduction Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE (R-Tenn.) and Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Schumer makes plea for voting bill, filibuster reform in rare Friday session Jan. 6 brings Democrats, Cheneys together — with GOP mostly absent 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 FeinsteinOvernight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs 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