Washington: The Senate is poised to approve a nuclear arms pact with Russia, handing President Barack Obama a huge victory on his top foreign policy priority.
Passage of the New START treaty appeared assured after 11 Republicans joined Democrats in a vote Tuesday to end debate on the pact. That signaled that Obama should have the two-thirds majority he needs when the Senate votes on final approval Wednesday.
The approval would mark a big comeback for Obama`s arm controls efforts after the treaty appeared all but dead just weeks ago. It also would allow Obama to continue efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Ratification would mark a third recent major political victory for Obama, even though his Democratic party was trounced in last month`s congressional elections. In recent days he won passage of a bipartisan tax deal and a vote ending the ban on gays openly serving in the military.
"We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons," Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, said after the vote.
The treaty would limit each country`s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended last year with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
The administration was adamant that it be ratified this year because the Democrats` majority in the Senate is set to shrink by five in January and waiting could have meant months of delay or defeat.
Republicans accused Democrats of rushing approval of the treaty for political reasons. They have asserted it would limit U.S. missile defense options and argued it has insufficient procedures to verify Russia`s adherence.
When Jon Kyl, the leading Republican on negotiations over the treaty, suggested a delay last month, Obama appeared unlikely to find the nine Republican votes needed for passage.
But he and top members of his administration lobbied intensely, with Obama postponing his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. They enlisted support from top military officials and big-name Republicans from past administrations who argued the treaty was essential for U.S. national security.
In the end, they persuaded enough Republicans to defy the party`s top two leaders in the Senate and support the pact.
"We know when we`ve been beaten," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told reporters hours before Tuesday`s vote.
Even the Senate`s No. 3 Republican, Lamar Alexander, endorsed the accord, saying he was assured U.S. defenses would not be weakened.
The treaty will leave the United States "with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," Alexander said on the Senate floor.
Republicans had tried to kill the treaty by forcing changes in its language that would have sent it back for negotiations with Moscow. Democrats were working to appease some Republican senators by letting them raise these issues in legislation accompanying the treaty that would not directly affect the treaty.
Most Republicans remained opposed.
"The administration did not negotiate a good treaty," Kyl said. "They went into the negotiations it seems to me with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy who goes into the car dealership and says, `I`m not leaving here until I buy a car.`"
Though Kyl looks likely to vote on the losing side of the debate over the treaty, in his negotiations with the administration he did win Obama`s commitment to modernize the remaining nuclear arsenal with projected spending of $85 billion over 10 years.
Some of that money is now in the pipeline, contained in a stopgap government funding bill that cleared Congress on Tuesday. The measure would finance the government, mostly at current levels, through March 4.
It makes an exception for nuclear security programs, allowing the government to spend money to modernize the United States` nuclear arsenal at a rate equal to Obama`s $624 million request.
"The administration did not negotiate a good treaty. They went into the negotiations it seems to me with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy who goes into the car dealership and says, `I`m not leaving here until I buy a car,`" Kyl said.
That opposition withered in the face of forceful statements from the military establishment, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen who said Monday that the 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."
Obama, who postponed his holiday vacation, lobbied hard for the Senate to complete the treaty before January when Republicans increase their numbers by five and the accord`s outlook would be bleak.
Weeks after Republicans routed Democrats at the polls — seizing control of the House and strengthening their numbers in the Senate — Obama has prevailed in securing overwhelming bipartisan approval of a tax deal with Republicans and getting repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly gay military members, a crucial issue with the party`s liberal base.
The White House had made steady progress in its efforts to persuade Republican lawmakers despite McConnell and Kyl`s opposition.
Later in the day, Democrats turned back Republican efforts to change the treaty, rejecting an amendment to add mention of rail-based launchers on a 63-32 vote and another to delay the treaty until US military equipment confiscated during Russia`s 2008 invasion of Georgia was returned. That measure failed, 61-32.
Any changes to the treaty would effectively kill the pact, sending it back to negotiators.
The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, specifically would limit each country`s strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. US weapons inspections ended a year ago with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
In announcing his support, Alexander said he was reassured by a letter from Obama, in which the president reiterated his commitment to modernizing the remaining nuclear arsenal with projected spending of $85 billion over 10 years. A significant amount of that money would go to nuclear facilities at Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., a critical issue with Alexander and Corker.
"My administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president," Obama wrote in letters to Republican Sens. Alexander and Cochran and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Daniel Inouye.
All 57 members of the Democratic caucus are expected to back the treaty; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., underwent cancer surgery on Monday and is likely to miss the vote. Republicans who have previously announced they will vote for the treaty are Richard Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and George Voinovich of Ohio.
"I think it`s going to pass and more than just pass," Corker told reporters.
Announcing they would oppose the treaty were Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Utah`s Orrin Hatch, a Republican facing re-election in 2012 and a possible primary challenge from tea party-backed candidates.